Thursday, 12 April 2012

Review of Thomas Frank's Pity the Billionaire, Part One

If you gathered the world’s teenaged anarchists together in a huge international congress, imagines Thomas Frank, and asked them to design the perfect crisis, they couldn’t have discredited market-based civilisation more completely than did the actual crash of 2008.

But discredited, as we now know four years on, doesn’t mean change or reform. Actually what discredited means is intensified. Discredited means working harder for less (if you’re needed at all), paying more tax, watching your pension shrink and public services dwindle. When David Cameron, borrowing a line from Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign, says “We’re all in it together”, you have to query what “it” actually is, quite apart from whether you are graced by the company of the wealthy.

Frank’s book, Pity the Billionaire, the Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, is about the way that ideology, in America, has justified and made sense of that intensification. Right from the beginning, from the moment a TV reporter, speaking from the Chicago Trader’s Floor invited “all you capitalists” to a Tea Party, it was about “redirecting public ire” – away from banks and corporations towards unaffordable government spending, and the guilty, reckless ones whose homes were being repossessed.

Just Pay Up

The deck is shuffled, writes Frank, and “before our eyes, imaginary terrors have been substituted for real ones. All that remains is for the nation to pay up.”

Here is Frank, one of the most eloquent non-fiction writers around, speaking:

(and he's really angry. Actually, he's the one with the light brown hair)

Frank captures the spirit of masochism that has infected Britain as well as the US. Seven lean years, he writes, are regarded as proper redress for seven fat years, a “deserved doomsday” to the borrowing way of life. We have all maxed out on our credit cards, government as well as people. And now we must pay the price.

In the US the imaginary terrors emerge from the wilds of a vivid imagination. One former Marine becomes an instant hero of the conservative movement after he declares the Democrats uncannily similar to the Nazis, both incurably Leftist. They were the National Socialists after all. As his star rises he writes a satirical children’s Christmas book featuring a German-speaking jackbooted elf who bullies the other elves into joining a union. “I have to go now,” as Woody Allen once said, “because I’m due back on Planet Earth”.

British Tea Party

Even though what happens in Britain is a dull echo of American innovations, these kind of fevered heights are not reached. We have Jeremy Clarkson rather than Glenn Beck. Conservative MP Douglas Carswell did try to start a Tea Party in Britain, in Brighton of all places, but only about 12 people showed up. You can’t seriously rant about the iniquities of socialism when everyone knows it was banished years ago.

But public ire is similarly diverted. In the US, the newest Right stoked fears of internment camps for conservatives, rampant state socialism and the demise of an idealised free market that never existed outside of the pages of economics textbooks. In Britain, tabloids urge readers to shop benefit cheats while 32 people die every week after they fail to convince government’s work capability test they are ill enough for sickness benefit. The “volcanic disgust” of which Frank writes hasn’t subsided, but it is channelled so that the blameless suffer while the real culprits get a pay rise.

Even right-wing legerdemain can’t hide the fact that something went very wrong in 2007-8. Yet in the conservative imagination, the flaw is not capitalism, but “crony capitalism, an unholy alliance of government and big business, that excludes the little guy. The problem is not in the market as such but that business is insufficiently capitalist. So the solution becomes, you guessed it, more capitalism. Forget the car crash, just press your foot down even more firmly on the accelerator.

The Concept

Friedrich Engels defined ideology as “the deduction of reality not from itself but from a concept”. And here the concept is unerringly the same. Whatever the problem, the solution is always ‘x’. The world could be sucked into an economic dark age (which seems imminent actually), whole regions engulfed by rising sea levels, and natural resources exhausted, but the solution will always be ‘x’, more capitalism. As long as you understand the concept.

The ideological thought process, and its departure from reality, is not subtle. Crony capitalism is capitalism. That the free market is a gigantic myth is not something the newest Right has an easy time appreciating. It is apparently impolite to point out that the large corporations dominating the economy don’t believe in capitalism, markets or competition, merely their bottom line. And if they feed on the state, on taxpayers, as opposed to customers, so be it.   

To anti-Soviet socialists, socialism was a perpetual virgin, the Right used to say in the ‘80s. Socialism was never the real thing. Now the Right has become its own caricature. Actual, existing capitalism is never the real stuff. However much reality disappoints, the theory of the free market remains unscathed. In fact it is emboldened by failure.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland 

But whatever this ideology’s Alice in Wonderland quality, it has the freedom to wonder and to wander. In Britain, that freedom extends to advocating votes for corporations and that poor people should be denied the franchise.

If these claims sound ridiculous, outrageous even, bear in mind that many of the seemingly immutable features of today’s political landscape – privatisation, contracting out, compulsory workfare for unemployed – would have been considered unthinkable in the 1970s. As Frank says, America is currently experiencing the fourth conservative uprising in the last half century, each one building on the successes of its predecessor. It was not for nothing that a history of free market think tanks in the UK was entitled Thinking the Unthinkable. The unthinkable has an unpleasant habit of transforming itself into the normal.

So why can’t the other side think? This failure is what Frank’s book ultimately ponders. While the conservatives “organise discontent” in the name of an idealised, atavistic vision of the free market, the other side, what amounts to an official American Left, believes in consensus. 

Forbidden Thoughts

“They,” Frank says of the Democrats, “could not summon an ideology of their own”. Conservatives wanted to speak about the grand philosophical issues, but American liberals could not even recount the memory of Roosevelt’s New Deal. “It was as though the old-schools liberal catechism has become forbidden language, placed on some index on prohibited thoughts.”

In 1999, Tony Blair told the Labour Party Conference, “My friends, the class war is over”. Seven years later, the world’s richest man, Warren Buffet, observed, “There’s class warfare all right, but it’s my class, the richest class, that is making war and we’re winning.” You can’t win a war if you think it doesn’t exist.

In the 1930s the cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, who later died fleeing the Nazis, remarked, “Every Fascism is a sign of a failed revolution”. The aphorism needs a little updating. Now we can see that every free market revival, however absurd, is a sign of a vanished Left.

The ramifications of that absence and how the Left can regain the freedom to think, are the subject of the second part of this review.

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