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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Monday, March 07, 2005

Two Cheers For Thomas Frank

At Reason: nice Jesse Walker review of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?

Frank’s argument gradually moves from the obviously accurate (the class composition of the conservative revolt, which he documents carefully) to the obviously fanciful (the alleged march toward laissez faire). Far from repealing the 20th century, the ruling party hasn’t even made it past the ’60s, given that our Republican president has pushed through an enormous, expensive expansion of Medicare, the Great Society’s most costly economic reform. It isn’t just cultural conservatives who haven’t gotten much from Republican rule. Free market conservatives—the kind who choose market principles over business interests when the two conflict—have been disappointed as well.

This is worth stressing, because it demonstrates the confusion that clouds Frank’s discussion of his ideological enemies. Almost none of the policies he describes as “free market” actually represent free markets....

He recounts corporate scandals, for example, in which energy companies tried to “socialize the risk [and] privatize the profits.” By definition, that’s crony capitalism, not laissez faire. He devotes pages to decrying the decline of the family farm and the rise of the giant agricorp, a phenomenon he lays at the market’s door. But while market forces certainly have pushed a lot of former farmers into other lines of work, the enormous enterprises that have replaced them, and which have earned so much of Frank’s scorn, aren’t exactly free of state protection or farm subsidies. Indeed, they get the bulk of the loot. Corporate welfare queens like ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland are no more a product of the market than National Public Radio.

Frank is likewise delusional in his acceptance of the "populist" myth of the traditional Democratic Party. He seems to rely on an even more dumbed-down version of Art Schlesinger's court history, in which the big government liberalism of the mid-20th century was a restraint on the power of big business and vehemently opposed by corporate interests. How, then, to explain the role of someone like Gerard Swope, along with a legion of other corporate representatives, in framing the New Deal?

Given Frank's wide reading in anti-capitalist literature, it's hard to believe he never heard of Gabriel Kolko or James Weinstein (not to mention G. William Domhoff), or even stumbled across a second-hand account of the "corporate liberalism" thesis. In fact, it's hard not to notice the parallel with Ronald Radosh's deliberate "forgetfulness" of his past association with Rothbard and the Old Right, which Walker found so suspicious in his review of Commies.

It's a shame, because the neoliberal hijacking of "free market" rhetoric is a big part of the greater propaganda war that Frank describes: the use of pseudo-populist and pseudo-libertarian symbolism to manipulate working-class people into embracing the agenda of the corporate mercantilists.

And by the way, the populism of backlash culture is by no means fake. There is a great deal of genuine economic populism in the heartland. It's described well by Christopher Lasch in parts of The True and Only Heaven. Many of the same people active in backlash culture were (and are) likewise active in the "new citizen movement" described by Harry Boyte in The Backyard Revolution (get your hands on a copy by hook or by crook). It's just that those aspects of Main Street populism haven't been reinforced by big money and amplified in the Karl Rove/Fox News echo chamber. Even today, though, the occasional religious social conservative expresses some sense of betrayal at being used to get out the vote, just so Bush could spend his "political capital" serving the interests of country club Republicans in the corporate suites.

My guess is that the Religious Right, as a voting bloc, has reached its high-water mark.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read the same review in the bookstore recently. Walker makes a good point. What annoys me is the sort of paranoid attachment to the Democratic Party that so many good, but misguided, people fall into. Frank does cite Lasch without ever really discussing him in any real depth. He would have done well to read Lasch more closely. If he would have, he would find out that the New Deal coalition was never truly grass roots. Instead it was an abortive attempt by political and capitalist elites to save their skins. What Frank does do well is to contrast the “mods” with the real social conservatives. The real conservatives are feared and dreaded by the more upper class mods who wish to only save their checkbook.

Speaking of Radosh, if I'm not mistaken, I saw once on C-Span talking about the book and he mentioned an uncle or family friend or something of his parents who was an anarchist. Well, surprisingly, he said he admired this person. But, he explained, the times are different. Not that anarchy is chaos or any of the standard ridiculous dismissals. No, instead, it is just a different time that demands something… different. He seems to me to be jumping on the intellectual bandwagon. When the wind changes, he moves. During the days when intellectuals took in Marxism, he hopped on board. Now that the business schools are filled with the disciples of the supposedly "free-market,” he hops on board the train to the “end of history.”


March 08, 2005 12:32 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

The New Dealers did a great job after the fact, though, in selling their program to the grass roots. Just about every Depression-era person I've talked to (my parents' generation) who grew up in the rural South has thought the sun shone out of FDR's ass. Somebody on the Movement of the Libertarian Left discussion list (Kent Hastings, I think) pointed out that the predominantly anti-statist cooperative movement was almost completely hijacked by the New Deal machine. And the whole traditional constituency for anti-corporate/anti-government populism was likewise bought off (symbolized by all the statist political stuff in Woody Guthrie's work). Even some of the authors of the agrarian manifesto I'll Take My Stand favored FDR's farm policies.

The one genuinely revolutionary thing going on in the '30s, the CIO's direct action on the shop floor and the regional general strikes, was completely tamed and brought under control by the Wagner Act.

March 08, 2005 7:42 PM  

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