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Friday, November 29, 2013

Sermon on Mont Pelerin: Or, Why It Is Better to Read Political Positions Rhetorically Not Philosophically

It is a commonplace for exasperated supporters of the Affordable Care Act to throw up their hands at the criticisms of Republican opponents of the Act and point out that the ACA is a conservative plan, key elements of which emerged from the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, and the practical model for which was a healthcare program implemented by a Republican governor who went on to win his party's nomination for President. All of this is true as far as it goes, but it is much more misleading than it is illuminating, and I personally think it is a fairly catastrophically self-defeating line of argument for Democrats to be making. When I say that these claims "are true as far as they go" what I mean to draw your attention to is that they do not go far enough to get at the actually relevant truths of the matter. What this dry recounting of facts in evidence misses is the context of political struggle in history which transforms every one of these facts into a fact of a different character altogether. It is crucial to recognize that the ideas borrowed by the ACA from The Heritage Foundation did not describe that conservative think-tank's ideal vision for the provision of health care and insurance coverage for Americans, but represented the best conservative response to the threat that seemed for a time to be represented by the Clinton Administration's push to implement a much more progressive public health care system. It is profoundly disingenuous to pretend that Republicans were ideologically wedded to the premise of the mandate prior to President Obama's advocacy of the notion. While it is true that Republicans could sell such a compromise with a rhetoric of "personal responsibility" the fact remains that for most Republicans the better implementation of that philosophy of "personal responsibility" would be a completely for-profit healthcare and insurance system optimizing profits of the already rich inasmuch as this could be squared with meeting the needs of worthy white people without providing support for unworthy brown people. This has always been the Republican vision, it drove their hostility to Social Security and to Medicare from their beginnings and drives their endlessly recurring schemes to voucherize and privatize these programs to this day. The ideas of the Heritage Foundation which found their way into the Affordable Care Act represented defensive positions in an ongoing skirmish with Democrats over the expansion of healthcare coverage the substance of which is the Democratic idea that the provision of some public goods (like basic healthcare, education, and income) is indispensable to the equitable rule of law and consensual participation in everyday commerce against the Republican idea that market orders (always but only incidentally backed by armies and police) distribute rewards and punishments both nonviolently and objectively and that it's not their fault that the objective justice spontaneously arising from such mechanisms preferentially benefits incumbent elites over majorities as a matter of course. To ignore the rhetorical context in which the Heritage Foundation's ideas were proposed is quite as nonsensical as ignoring the fact that the Republican Governor who implemented the "Romneycare" model for the ACA did so in a staunchly liberal state, Massachusetts, with substantial Democratic representation in every branch of its governance, and a long progressive commitment to the provision of equitable healthcare providing the setting for this "Republican" accomplishment.

I offer up that example as a prelude to making the point that inspired this post. I just read Timothy Shenk's review of Angus Burgin's The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression. The review proposes Burgin's book as a more neutrally scholarly rendition of the history told in right-wing books like Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw's The Commanding Heights and left-wing books like David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism. The right-wingers like to tell a triumphalist tale of Friedrich Hayek and his band of Free Marketeers and Movement Conservatives setting upon a monumental Battle Of Ideas against collectivist forces that eventually won the Cold War, presided over the dismantlement of the Evil Empire, and broke down regulatory barriers to free enterprise in the free world. Meanwhile, the left-wingers tell a tale of anti-democratic reactionaries organizing big business plutocrats to demolish New Deal and Great Society programs to amplify their personal profit-taking to the economic and ecological ruin of the world, circumventing class solidarities by mobilizing racist resentments and patriarchal fears, circumventing economically-literate fact-based harm-reduction policy making by investing in the creation and maintenance of an anti-academy think-tank archipelago of fraudulent pseudo-intellectual experts disdaining facts for spin and PR. Shenk writes that "Angus Burgin’s The Great Persuasion asks us to attend more closely to this ["battle of ideas"] and the people who made it. When we do, he argues, it uncovers a history that fits poorly with both left and right variations on the ascent of neoliberalism."

I, for one, doubt that very much.
[M]uch of the book, centers on the early years of the Mont Pèlerin Society, a group established in 1947 whose founders hoped to provide a refuge for opponents of collectivism. Yet close examination of this seemingly narrow frame scrambles the binaries separating right and left, uncovering a history where the supposed founders of the American chapter of neoliberalism at the University of Chicago reprimand Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom for overdoing its indictment of the state…
It hardly "scrambles the binaries separating right and left" to discover that institutional voices would hesitate to endorse wholeheartedly a market fundamentalist screed demanding the demolition of the post-New Deal welfare state and the post-war military-industrial-education complex in the epoch of its greatest hegemonic strength, especially when so many of these voices were or represented actors benefiting in non-negligible ways from the prevailing arrangements, however much they may have sympathized with Hayek's line of argument or identified with his ideal outcomes.

Nevertheless, Shenk goes on in the next sentence to document that "Keynes report[ed] himself 'in a deeply moved agreement' with the very same text." Of course, anybody who actually reads Keynes knows that his politics were profoundly bourgeois and not merely perfunctorily imperialist, and there was plenty for him to agree with in a deeply moved way with Hayek's arguments against highly planned economies, especially in the totalitarian mould. I daresay that if one's acquaintance with Keynes is derived from Hate Radio and Fox News where Keynes is more or less identified with Karl Marx (and with Islamofascist Obama) it might "scramble the binaries separating right and left" to discover that contemporary committed Marx-hating bourgeois academics in privileged academic perches found things to like in one another's writings whatever their disagreements, I can't say that this scrambles my own sense of the political field particularly. Shenk continues:
According to Burgin, Keynes was right to see much he could endorse in Hayek. The Road to Serfdom, Burgin notes, 'supported a role for the government in counteracting the business cycle, regulating a broad range of business activities, and administering extensive social insurance guarantees,' hardly the platform one would expect from a worshiper at the idol of laissez-faire.
You will notice that Hayek has gone from an advocate of state-demolition disagreement with the extremity of which demonstrated the institutional right to be more moderate than conventional left-wing narratives would have it, to being a champion of an activist-state holding hands with John Maynard Keynes agreement with whom demonstrates Hayek in turn to be more moderate than conventional left-wing narratives would have it. That doesn't make much sense on the face of it, but that isn't the only problem with Shenk's effort to rehabilitate a moderate Hayek via his review of Burgin's intellectual history (again, I haven't read the book yet, so I don't know if Burgin would sympathize or not with Shenk's efforts on this score). Actually, anyone who has read The Road to Serfdom and the General Theory -- I've taught both of these texts in undergraduate courses on popular postwar market rhetoric, by the way -- has absolutely no trouble at all distinguishing the views of these two theorists (even if their comparable ethnic and class positioning might still readily lead them to sympathize with certain bourgeois imperialist figurations of "civilizational politics" more generally), anyone who has read these writers knows that there is plenty more for Keynes to dislike than to like in Hayek's work when it comes to the substance and to the questions of what distinctively mattered in their work, all very much to the contrary of the implication in Shenk's review.

But to return for a moment to the spirit of the example with which I began, to the role of right-wing Republican ideas in the formulation of the Affordable Care Act, I want to emphasize that at the height of the stunning success and institutional prevalence of New Deal welfare programs and the World War II military-industrial complex in the aftermath of World War a moderate and defensive acceptance of a regulatory and social support role for the democratic state is indeed EXACTLY "the platform one would expect from a worshiper at the idol of laissez-faire." It is true that one could find market fundamentalist zealots like Hayek's mentor and long-time colleague Ludwig von Mises (and eventually the flying monkey armies unleashed by Ayn Rand) offering up unadulterated paeans to free markets that express this worship at the idol more frankly, but for serious reformers, like Hayek and like Milton Friedman after him, who shared the zealots' assumptions and aspirations and ideal outcomes but recognized the actually-existing normative and institutional terrain on which the "battle of ideas" was to be fought in a multi-generational skirmishing over changing legislation and investment and cultural iconography there was little point, whatever the satisfactions involved, in indulging their libertopian id so baldly but to such little result.

One encounters a variation on this point when liberals roll their eyes at the worship by Tea Party Republicans of Saint Ronald Reagan, snipping that Reagan's record of raising taxes and providing amnesty for undocumented immigrants and compromising with democrats to support social security would make him altogether unelectable to the very Tea Party Republicans who claim to worship him. Needless to say, these Tea Party zealots believe that Ronald Reagan put America on the road that eventuates in the Tea Party, and it is for this that they sanctify his name. They regard the "record" liberals point to as little more than a set of fraught compromises attesting to the vicissitudes of the larger struggle defined more essentially by assumptions and aspirations with which they continue to identify. And, I must say, I think it is the Tea Party and not the liberal scolds who are right on this score. Ronald Reagan talked about "welfare queens." Ronald Reagan said that "government isn't the solution to our problems, government is the problem." The Tea Party knows its Own. We should take their word on it. Ronald Reagan was an asshole, and it is high time liberals stopped trying quixotically to score cleverness points by declaring him a better asshole than the assholes the Republicans are now.

But quite apart from the fact that right wing market libertarians and Republicans whose eyes were on the plutocratic prize even as they proposed compromises in the belly of the beast of the New Deal and Great Society as they prepared the way for its demolition, I think there is another important point being obfuscated in this "neutral" re-writing of the history of this "battle of ideas." Shenk supplements his point that these libertopian partisans were willing in the heat of the battle to compromise with their foes when it looked like they would lose completely otherwise (as if anybody is supposed to find this surprising), by also making the point that there was from a beginning a role for the state among most of these anti-statists: "Nor was Hayek the only avowed proponent of markets willing to cede broad powers to the state. Even on the right, a multitude of priorities -- safeguarding Christianity, preserving empire, winning the Cold War, finessing the relationship between capitalism and democracy -- vied for precedence with defending the market."

What is utterly bizarre to me in all this is that this recognition is phrased in the review as if it demands a revision of left-partisan accounts of neoliberal movement: As if the repeated appearance among libertopians of an apparently paradoxical defense of the police power of states in the service of elite-incumbency is some kind of surprise to the left-partisan account that only the neutral revisionism of Burgin's account illuminates? Perhaps Shenk forgets that David Harvey's Brief History of Neoliberalism (a text he disdains, remember, to recommend Burgin's more "careful" and scholarly non-partisan one) already assumes that neoconservative militarism is always inextricably connected to and enabling of neoliberal corporatism. In my own formulation of the point, neoliberalism/neoconservatism is in fact a discursive-institutional corporate-military circuit seeking to re-write the living political contest of left-democratization against right-antidemocratization in the image of clashes in emphases/constituencies within anti-democracy. It is, of course, a commonplace of democratic left critiques of neoliberal/market fundamentalist accounts of free market spontaneism that they smuggle a whole heavy-handed authoritarian state apparatus invisibly into their anarcho-capitalistic arias, stealthing vast amounts of economic planning they otherwise disdain under the sign of "Defense," disavowing the role of majorities in the creation and maintenance of commonwealth by defending the violent control of wealth by minorities with the police power of states as an application of "self-defense," declaring contractual relations as "nonviolent" by fiat whatever the circumstances of mis-information and duress that stratify them in reality, and so on. There is nothing in the examples Shenk highlights that "scrambles the binaries separating left from right" in any sensible accounting of this distinction, nothing that "fits poorly with… [at any rate] left… variations on the ascent of neoliberalism" as this narrative is coming to be understood in the main.

It will come as no surprise that I would endorse the left-wing versions of such tales, but I suspect that I would find the right-wing versions more instructive than the "even-handed" treatment recommended in the review of Burgin's book. "An intellectual historian by training," Shenk glowingly intones, "Burgin has a gift for integrating careful textual exegeses with panoramic surveys of the political scene, using a wide-angle lens to highlight what matters in specific texts while deploying close readings to revise the big picture." I fear that Shenk's rhapsodizing over "panoramic surveys" with a "wide-angle lens" to "revise the big picture" reveals his own preference for philosophical over rhetorical readings of the programmatic texts through which intellectual movements seek to implement their ideals in the long, fraught stakeholder struggles of history. An emphasis on the propositional content of these texts from which conclusions can be reconstructed and deduced syllogistically to tell this tale of historical struggles differently is almost never as clarifying as it appears to be. However moderate the Heritage Foundation advocacy of a health insurance mandate may seem as compared logically in its published propositions to the positions of members of the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives against "the Obamacare socialist takeover of the American economy," however moderate the Gipper's sausage-making with Tip may seem as compared logically in their published propositions to the monolithic obstructionism of the Tea Party Caucus of highly popular urgently necessary problem-solving legislation proposed by Democratic members in Congress, however moderate Hayek's Road to Socialism may seem as compared logically in its published propositions to David Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom, it is profoundly misleading to fail to grasp the ways in which these apparently more "moderate" forms aspired to and practically enabled the eventually immoderate ones, as they meant to do. It is profoundly misleading to treat these propositions as earnest declarations of ideal belief rather than compromise proposals offered up in particular circumstances into the hearing of audiences with limitations and interests of their own in the hopes of soliciting best-case or least-worst outcomes in light of deeper assumptions and animating aspirations to which they only partially attest as propositions. Although they may not provide easy clarity nor offer up as much occasion for surprising historical revisionism (surprising mostly because they get the underlying fundamentals so egregiously wrong), I do think that intellectual history is most illuminating which offers up competing rhetorical readings of political formulations situating them at once in the dynamic give-and-take of interested stakeholder position-making but also embedded in shared affiliative assumptions and aspirations, whether subcultural, ideological, structural, or what have you.

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