The Wrecking Crew

April 8, 2009 at 10:51 pm (Uncategorized)

Well, any book that shares a name with Matt Helm can’t be all bad.

But fear not, even if  it carried another name, Tom Frank’s latest book, would still be a witty and entertaining polemic.  Frank used to be the editor of The Baffler, a Chicago based left-liberal journal of politics and culture. The best of the journal is anthologized in two collections: Commodify your Dissent and Boob Jubilee. Frank also wrote One Market under God, The Conquest of Cool (both essential reading for anyone who watches Mad Men) and most recently What’s the Matter with Kansas?  All fine books from a liberal democratic point of view trying to understand the rise of conservative politics in the US.

And even if you don’t share Frank’s political stance (and I don’t), the books are still well worth reading. Frank’s latest book is in the same spirit as What’s the Matter with Kansas, but this time he takes aim at the conservative ideology infesting Washington and especially its Republican manifestation.

On a certain level Frank agrees with the critique of Washington by the Republicans: it is corrupt and venal. Frank contrasts the Washington of  today with the New Deal and paints a fairly idealistic picture of the public servant working for the good of the country, rather than for personal enrichment. Today however, Frank argues, Washington has been the corrupt caricature the Republicans attack, but he argues, it is the Republicans and the conservatives who represent that corruption.  Rather than the perpetual outsiders they imagine themselves to be,  conservatives have run Washington for decades, and it is they and the business interests they represent (along with their lobbyist friends) who have led to such an appalling state of affairs.

 In describing conservative ideology, Frank suggests there is little attachment to principle, and that the over-riding concern is a pro-business agenda coupled with personal self-enrichment. As an example, Frank charts the cause of South Africa in the 1980s. For the right in the ’80s Cold War, South Africa was a bulwark against communism. However, by the beginning of the ’90s with the collapse of actually existing socialism, South Africa began to look decidedly unfashionable, even in rightest circles. The regime was jettisoned, shortly before its own collapse, in favour of a new ideology, libertarianism – or rather the belief that it is the market, and only the market which can bring happiness to humanity. Those tempted to be persuaded by such a view, but still possessing the faculty of critical thinking might consult Naomi Klein’s flawed but interesting book The Shock Doctrine for a look at the results of such a view.

But, while Libertarianism has been around for decades, its current appeal has a different basis: 

And libertarianism is good because it helps pass off a patently pro business political agenda as a noble bid for human freedom. Whatever we may think of libertarianism as a set of ideas, practically speaking, it is a doctrine that owes its visibility to the obvious charms it holds for the wealthy and the powerful. The reason we have so many well-funded libertarians in America these days is not because libertarianism suddenly acquired an enormous grassroots following, but because it appeals to those who are able to fund ideas. Like social Darwinism and Christian Science before it, libertarianism flatters the successful and rationalizes their core beliefs about the world. They warm to the libertarian idea that taxation is theft because they themselves don’t like to pay taxes. They fancy the libertarian notion that regulation is communist because they themselves find regulation intrusive and annoying. Libertarianism is a politics born to be subsidized.

Money, plus a self righteousness manifests itself in what Frank calls the  malicious gleefulness of conservatives: It’s not enough to call an opponent wrong, or suggest his economic policies will lead to disaster; the is a need to destroy the character – While Ann Coulter’s screeds betray evidence of  a person sorely in need of therapy, she is by no means the only one who indulges in this sort of behaviour. There is an almost pathological need to be offensive and shocking.  I remember the phrase political correctness when it was a joke, and before its elevation by the right as a sort of leftist totalitarianism: Whenever anyone begins a sentences with the phrase. ‘ this might not be politically correct but…’ wait for the most racist, sexist, homophobic comments you’ve heard.  Today, this passes for political discourse.

When I was a leftist student in the mid 1980s, I was involved in the usual students politics: anti-apartheid work, Central American solidarity, environmental work, etc. Somehow or other, we heard that the campus chapter of the Young Progressive Conservatives had contributed money to buy a bullet fired by Contras revels against Sandinista soldiers in Nicaragua.  Happily this fact was revealed by the President of the campus New Democratic Party Youth group during a visit by Conservative leader Larry Grossman who turned white with horror and then anger when he realized the truth. The Young Progressive Conservative who had organized the purchase later appeared as the president and only member of the Objectivist Society on campus.

 The Wrecking Crew is a book which contains much to enjoy.  Frank is an entertaining writer who skillfully dissects and serves up his opponents. However, his own politics place him in the tradition of writers who, when it comes to critique are very sharp, but when they put forward their own platform come up wanting. (Alexander Cockburn springs to mind)

The idea that Washington was fundamentally ever any different than today is hardly sustainable. The state has always been about preserving the interests of business not those of the people; it could not be different. The likelihood that the state and government will greatly expand its role during the current economic crisis is high: even to the extent of some kind of warmed over New Deal programmes. Nevertheless, we are not seeing a reversal of previous polices or a creeping socialism: it is to protect, not to  overthrow capitalism.  Frank’s title, the wrecking crew, is certainly accurate for the short sightedness of the ascendant faction of American capital, but the larger picture is missing.

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