Ideas that don’t belong at Occupy

October 26, 2011

Elizabeth Schulte explains why libertarians are out of place in the Occupy struggle.

THE RIGHT wing is responding to the Occupy Wall Street movement as you'd expect--displaying all their contempt for ordinary people.

Tea Party Republican Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia called the Occupy protests an "attack upon freedom." "I see people angry in my district, too, but this attack upon business, attack upon industry, attack upon freedom," he said. "I think that's what this is all about."

Republican presidential candidate and pizza mogul Herman Cain skipped right to the chase and went after the protesters themselves. "Don't blame Wall Street, don't blame the big banks," the Tea Party favorite told the Wall Street Journal. "If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself. It is not someone's fault if they succeeded, it is someone's fault if they failed."

Tea Party politicians who claimed to be populists only recently are showing that when it comes to expressions of what ordinary people really do think, they're on the other side.

Opinion polls show that about twice as many people are sympathetic toward Occupy Wall Street than the Tea Party, whose support has plummeted since it fell out of the media spotlight. According to a Time magazine poll conducted October 9-10, when asked their opinion of the Tea Party, 8 percent of respondents said "very favorable" and 19 percent "somewhat favorable." When asked about Occupy Wall Street, 25 percent said "very favorable" and 29 percent "somewhat favorable."

Ron Paul
Ron Paul (Gage Skidmore)

Despite this, the Occupy protests are still treated in much of the media as a "fringe" movement--and police around the country feel perfectly justified in manhandling any demonstrator they get their hands on. When a right-winger came armed with a loaded handgun to a town hall meeting where Barack Obama was discussing health care reform in 2009, the police gave him a pass, allowing him to circulate through the crowd of protesters.

The actual fringe--the Tea Party--got the rapt attention of the corporate media, while it took weeks for them to report on the Occupy protesters.

OF COURSE, there are exceptions to the rule. At many Occupy encampments, you'll find some right-wingers with a lot in common with Herman Cain. These are libertarians, particularly supporters of Ron Paul, the Texas congressman and contender for the Republican presidential nomination--and they claim their ideas are part of the Occupy movement.

Some people think Occupy activists should view the libertarian presence as a positive thing--that we should reach across the left-right divide and welcome Ron Paul supporters into our movement.

But does the presence of the libertarian view make our movement stronger or weaker? Does giving their ideas a place in the movement show our ability to embrace all kinds of people? Or does this give credence to an ideology that is the opposite of what Occupy stands for?

It's important to know the facts about Ron Paul. He's considered one of the fathers of the Tea Party movement, and his son Rand Paul won a Kentucky Senate seat last year against the opposition of the Republican establishment thanks to the support of the Tea Party.

Ron Paul's supporters--with their typically obsessive focus on a handful of issues like closing down the Federal Reserve--have become a fixture at some Occupy events, particularly in the South. They claim they're participating because they oppose Wall Street, the same as everyone else. And on the surface, Paul's libertarian views might seem to jibe with those of the majority of the Occupy movement.

Paul opposes the "war on drugs" and even favors legalization. He opposes the war in Iraq and the civil rights-shredding USA PATRIOT Act. But these are stances in keeping with his libertarian philosophy of "getting the government out of people's lives"--a philosophy that, when extended to other issues, translates into the complete opposite of what would help workers and the poor suffering the effects of the economic crisis.

For instance, Paul is in favor of eliminating the federal Department of Education and allowing individual states to decide what kind of education they deem appropriate for children, and how much funding to devote to it. Paul also opposes Social Security, a program that, during the decades it has been in existence, has helped tens of millions of the elderly and disabled avoid falling into poverty. Paul also supports abolishing federal welfare programs, along with the entire Department of Health and Human Services.

Instead, Ron Paul thinks that the poor should go it alone, without any government help. At a Republican candidates' debate in Tampa, Fla., in September, he was asked what should happen to a 30-year-old who decided against paying for insurance, but who goes into coma. This was his heartless answer:

Well, in a society that you accept welfarism, he expects the government to take care of him. But what he should do is whatever he wants to do, and assume responsibility for himself. My advice to him would have a major medical policy.

According to Paul's every-man-for-himself philosophy, any regulation mandating a minimum wage or safer working conditions are a part of "big government," and should be eliminated. He's against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to prohibit discrimination against workers on the basis of sexual identity, and he voted against extending unemployment benefits from 39 weeks to 59 weeks in October 2008.

So it only follows that Paul is against the organizations that have historically fought for laws to defend workers' living standards and protect their safety on the job: unions. Paul's goal is to "free Americans from the shackles of compulsory unionism" by passing a "National Right to Work Act" in Congress.

As he wrote in his book Liberty Defined:

Minimum wage laws and mandating union contracts (closed shop) are designed to help a small segment of workers gain economic advantage while actually hurting unprotected workers. Long term, even the beneficiaries suffer from the unemployment that excessive wage demands bring about. High wages are great, but if there are no jobs, they become meaningless. In a free society with free markets, workers should always negotiate for the highest wage, while businesses should always strive for maximum profits.

Paul and his supporters aren't interested in protecting the rights of workers but rather the rights of corporations to make a profit by exploiting employees free of any legal restrictions.

MANY OF Paul's policies are just plain racist. One role for "big government" that he supports is increased militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border. Included in his "six-point plan for immigration" is ending "birthright citizenship." Paul explains on his website, "As long as illegal immigrants know their children born here will be citizens, the incentive to enter the U.S. illegally will remain strong."

Paul is well-known for opposing U.S. wars in the Middle East, but while he argues for withdrawal of U.S. troops, he also wants them to come back to patrol the border. As Paul said at a Republican debate in Ames, Iowa, in August:

I have a strong position on immigration. I don't think that we should give amnesty and they become voters. But I do think we should deal with our borders. One way that I would suggest that we could do it is pay less attention to the borders between Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan, and bring our troops home and deal with the border. But why do we pay more attention to the borders overseas and less attention to the borders here at home?

On the question of bilingual education--as with most questions--Paul says the states should decide. He also thinks that the states should decide whether women should have the legal right to obtain safe, legal abortions. Paul said in an October 1999 speech before Congress:

I am strongly pro-life. I think one of the most disastrous rulings of this century was Roe v. Wade. I do believe in the slippery-slope theory. I believe that if people are careless and casual about life at the beginning of life, we will be careless and casual about life at the end. Abortion leads to euthanasia. I believe that.

Anyone who knows the history of the civil rights movement knows what Paul's talk about "states' rights" really means--allowing racism and segregation to thrive, while pretending that is was a matter of giving states the "democratic" right to choose their own fate.

So it should be of no surprise that Ron Paul was the only member of Congress to vote against a 2004 bill honoring the 40th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Paul said:

The result [of the Civil Rights Act] was a massive violation of the rights of private property and contract, which are the bedrocks of free society. The federal government has no legitimate authority to infringe on the rights of private property owners to use their property as they please and to form (or not form) contracts with terms mutually agreeable to all parties. The rights of all private property owners, even those whose actions decent people find abhorrent, must be respected if we are to maintain a free society.

It doesn't take much stretch of the imagination to envision how Paul's line of thinking would have applied to the debates about the abolition of slavery a century and a half ago.

ANYONE WHO has been to a protest or General Assembly of the Occupy movement recognizes right away the amazing openness and welcoming atmosphere. These are places where political ideas can be discussed and debated, and where people whose ideas are ordinarily never heard are heard. This, along with its anti-corporate message, is what has attracted so many people to the Occupy movement.

This openness and respect for the right to express ideas is one of the strengths of Occupy. But debates over what kinds of ideas make the movement stronger--and which do not--also have a place. It's not just the case that political campaigns like Ron Paul's have no place in a movement that's independent of the two parties. Some ideas are actually counterproductive--because they are in disagreement with building a movement committed to opposing Wall Street greed.

Ideas like those espoused by Ron Paul and his libertarian supporters, such as opposition to government social programs, are the opposite of what the Occupy movement is about. We need more taxes on the rich and corporations, with the money devoted to helping workers and the poor, by increasing the quality of public schools or providing an effective social safety net.

Likewise, there is no place for ideas that divide us and make our movement weaker by vilifying undocumented immigrants or trade unions. We need political discussion and participation that builds solidarity and unity within the Occupy movement.

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