BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
If you've been following politics over the past few years, you are undoubtedly familiar with the political machinations, maneuvering, and the ongoing efforts by the conservative billionaires, Charles and David Koch, to bend democracy to their will and turn the political landscape into their own personal playground. The Koch Brothers' major league funding of right-wing candidates and campaigns (big and small) across the country, have become one of the most toxic elements on America's political scene.
Chances are, however, you do not know anyone who actually knows any of the Koch brothers. You are even less likely to know anyone who, as a teenager, actually spent some time with one of the Koch Brothers in their hometown of Wichita, Kansas.
By the rules of "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," I should acknowledge my link to the man, who, as a teenager, hung around the John Birch Society bookshop in Wichita, and met Charles Koch!
Meet Gus diZerega, blogger, political theorist, and author.
I met diZerega while we attended the University of Kansas in the 1960s. It was a long time ago, but if I remember correctly, we clashed – politically, not physically -- a few times during our college years. There were some heated exchanges. Our relationship these days, which is via e-mail exchanges, is not only civil, but also enjoyable and informative; at least I feel informed by his writing.
In a post titled "A Meditation on Charles Koch, Classical Liberalism, and Global Warming," diZerega wrote that he first met Charles Koch while he was in high school in Wichita, Kansas: "I had become a young conservative attracted to right-wing conspiracy theories. One afternoon I was in the American Opinion Bookstore, a John Birch Society operation filled with books on the Communist conspiracy."
While perusing the array of right-wing pamphlets and books available, Charles Koch spotted him and "led" him "over to the small classical liberal section he had persuaded [the book store] to carry, and bought me my first serious books on social theory – volumes by Ludwig von Mises and other leading and historical classical liberal scholars."
diZerega recalled this encounter as being "heady stuff for a young man just discovering his love of history and ideas."
In a follow-up piece titled "The Koch's role in the conspiracy against American democracy," diZerega expanded on his initial memories: "In the 8th grade my mother became concerned I was becoming too 'liberal' because I was upset upon hearing John Birch Society [JBS] members were opponents of democracy." His mother told him that some JBS members were friends of the family. "She then began taking me to many right wing talks to learn what she believed to be the truth. I grew into a teen-age conservative, one who organized a Young Americans for Freedom chapter in high school and another my first year of college.
"I also was a frequent guest at John Birch Society meetings in Wichita, often attended by Fred Koch, Sr., one of [the organization's] founders. Fred was the father of Charles and David Koch. I never met David, but Charles bought me, a much younger high school student, my first serious scholarly books on classical liberal thought. In doing so he launched me on what ultimately became my scholarly career. My personal gratitude to him for this is life-long. But that is another story. This one is different, darker, and affects every American."
And while they never played stickball in the Wichita streets, were on the same Pony League baseball team, or attended any Wichita State Shockers' basketball games together, diZerega was invited to the Koch family home, where, as he remembers it, a group of folks were discussing Abraham Maslow's work, particularly his Toward a Psychology of Being. diZerega met Charles' brother Bill, but never got to know him, as "he was much less interested in ideas and philosophy than was his brother."
In an email exchange, diZerega told me that "Initially Charles was a bright MIT graduate and I was a bright high school student with promise as a classical liberal/libertarian in some capacity. Later, in college, I began moving rapidly in a pure libertarian anarcho-capitalist direction and Charles was already there or getting there himself. When we were at KU we were attacked by the John Birch folks in Wichita and Charles remained a source of friendly support. Having his support helped us have confidence we were on the right track in opposing the war.
"Some of us would visit him at the Koch mansion for conversation and relaxation on the occasional weekend or college vacation. We would usually discuss philosophy and political theory as well as shake our heads at the rigidity of the older right-wingers.
"He was an idealist then and firmly convinced in the desirability of a society based on voluntary contract with the market coordinating everyone's interactions. He was opposed to the Vietnam War, and took an ad out in the Wichita Eagle to that effect. For this he was forced to resign his Birch membership, which I suspect he had joined as a gesture of family solidarity. He never talked about the 'communist conspiracy' to us.
"His later evolution (or devolution) came about I suspect due to the bubble he lived in in Wichita, surrounded by right wing oil men, and others who regarded him as their meal ticket and so never really challenged him. We all suffer as a result."
Since those heady (and youthful) Wichita days, both the Koch Brothers and diZerega have come a long way.
I asked diZerega to talk about the Koch Brothers early ideological formation, their early interest in libertarianism, and how their wealth has led them down what he has characterized as their "anti-democratic" path.
diZerega: "I think Charles was initially attracted to libertarian thinking because it claimed a strong moral foundation to a system under which his family had grown wealthy. It was far more intellectually alive and socially creative than the authoritarian right wing attitudes that dominated the Birch Society and Wichita's conservative oilmen. The evidence for this was his opposition to the Vietnam War (he purchased a large newspaper ad in the Wichita Eagle or Beacon).
"Libertarianism was explicitly anti-democratic not because it favored undemocratic government but because it opposed government in general, and lumped them all as "the state." But once one has rejected democracy as an ideal, and has decided as Kochs have that governments are necessary, they open themselves up to the worst of right wing ideology.
"As Charles and David Koch sought to make libertarianism a national force, the contradictions came to the surface and the movement split. Further the Libertarian Party proved electorally powerless. The Kochs could have encouraged making it a more varied ideology with a lively internal life, but instead seem to have subordinated all thinking within it to their political agenda, one that increasingly made common cause with the Kansas Republican Party and the very much non libertarian right wing. Likely they thought so long as 'the market' was strong nothing else mattered. In the process they contributed to destroying much of the diversity within the libertarian movement even as it grew more dependent on their money. They rarely faced serious disagreement or challenges.
"Enormous wealth, surrounded by opportunists, immersed within right wing culture with few if any contacts elsewhere- not a very good environment for Charles to maintain his intellectual adventurousness, and he pretty clearly lost it."
According to diZerega, who has written about these matters on his blog, The Koch Brothers "now seem to me essentially right-wing would-be plutocrats who soft pedal any remaining libertarian notions they might still hold in order to plan a large scale assault on American democracy."