Ordinary Americans don’t need the left’s pity

Thomas Frank’s belief that people aren’t revolting against capitalism because they’ve been duped by right-wing ideologues betrays an incredible disdain for the public.

Daniel Ben-Ami

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The economic crisis that first hit the US in 2008 put one of America’s leading left-wing writers in an awkward spot. Only for Thomas Frank, it was not the risk of unemployment or lower wages. Instead, the financial crisis and subsequent recession threatened to undermine his pet theory: that conservatives had somehow duped ordinary Americans into ‘false consciousness’.

Frank rose to prominence in 2004 with the publication of What’s the Matter with Kansas? (entitled What’s the Matter with America? in Britain). He stated its premise baldly on the first page: ‘people getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about’. He repeated the thesis many times in subsequent years.

The thrust of his argument back then was that conservatives had fomented a cultural backlash against liberals on such topics as abortion and ‘unchristian art’. This culture war diverted ordinary Americans from economic issues, any discussion of which risked making them conscious of their ‘true’ interests. For Frank, this ruse had succeeded in winning working-class Americans away from their true home in the radical wing of the Democrat party.

Wind forward a few years and it is clear why a problem for Frank’s thesis emerged in 2008. Economic issues suddenly dominated the news, yet there was no swing back to radical Democratic politics. On the contrary, conservatives were more than happy to promote a discussion of the economy in free-market populist terms. The shift to the left that might be expected according to the logic of Frank’s earlier theory had failed to materialise.

Pity the Billionaire can be seen as Frank’s attempt to tackle this quandary. The primary villains are the free marketeers who managed to turn anger at America’s economic plight to their advantage. This movement appropriated many of the old symbols of the left, including protests and placards, to present itself as consisting of political outsiders. It had no formal leaders, but the Tea Party was at its core while conservative broadcasters such as Glenn Beck played a prominent role. Ultimately it served the interests of the American elite by once again shifting the gaze of the people from where Frank thinks it should have been.

Barack Obama and the Democrats play the role of secondary villains in Frank’s schema. They often failed to criticise Wall Street and were sometimes literally in its pay. Frank bemoans their failure to instigate a radical populism in the style of Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Essentially Frank’s argument is that conservatives have succeeded in duping ordinary Americans twice in recent years. First, it was by manipulating the debate about cultural themes and, second, by propagating crude free-market populism. The implication is that if Americans were dumb the first time around they were even dumber later on.

Reading Frank’s books, it is easy to come up with an alternative explanation for the lack of a radical response to the economic crisis: the utter banality of the ideas put forward by many of those who regard themselves as left-wing critics. This often spills over into an implicit and sometimes even explicit contempt for ordinary Americans.

For a start, Frank grossly overestimates the scope of political debate in America. He takes the occasional radical rhetoric of politicians, protestors and TV hosts at face value. In practice, the American elite has pursued a policy of dull pragmatism for many years.

On the economic front, there is little support for the free market, despite the occasional hype. For every example of deregulation and liberalisation, there are many more examples of intervention in the economy. The massive bailout of troubled financial institutions by the American authorities in 2008-9 is just one example. Total government spending accounted for about 41 per cent of economic output last year according to the latest estimate from the International Monetary Fund. That is a world away from the free-market ideal promoted by the likes of Milton Friedman. He argued that the state’s role should be limited to such activities as defending law and order, supporting property rights, providing a monetary framework and promoting competition. Whatever Frank’s views on the desirability of intervention, he should recognise that no mainstream politician is seriously promoting a minimal state.

Even those in power who are associated with free market views rarely follow them through. For instance, Alan Greenspan, chairman of America’s central bank between 1987 and 2006, was known as a disciple of Ayn Rand, a writer and arch free marketer. Yet, in practice, Greenspan was more of a pragmatic interventionist. He proved more than willing to bail out troubled financial institutions and to keep interest rates low to shore up flagging economic activity.

Frank does occasionally acknowledge that America does not have a ‘pure market system’ in practice. But he fails to recognise that what actually exists, as opposed to what might be considered desirable, is nothing like a free-market system. Even on a rhetorical level, mainstream politicians are generally guarded about endorsing unqualified support for free-market ideas.

Another weakness of Frank’s is his endorsement of the view that Wall Street was primarily responsible for the crisis. He does not argue that case; he merely notes that it is widely accepted. But the popularity of this perspective – on the right as much as the left – does not make it correct. Suffocating moralism about ‘greedy bankers’ is an obstacle to any serious examination of the systemic roots of the crisis. Although there is no doubt that a financial bubble burst in America in 2008, it happened in a particular political and economic context.

Pity the Billionaire is infused with bemusement at the success of conservatives in turning ordinary Americans against liberal intellectuals such as Frank himself. But given the paucity of his arguments and his promotion of the prejudice that people are so easily duped, he should have expected such a reaction. Anyone who views the public with such disdain should not be surprised if they return the compliment.

Daniel Ben-Ami is a journalist and author based in London. Visit his website here. A new paperback edition of his book Ferraris for All is now available. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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