Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Plot to Assassinate Democracy

Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Charles Koch and one James McGill Buchanan and there you have the radical right's stealth plan to dismember democracy in America. The worst part, according to George Monbiot, is that it's gone past the point of plotting. It's underway in America today and catching hold across the Atlantic.

It’s the missing chapter: a key to understanding the politics of the past half century. To read Nancy MacLean’s new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, is to see what was previously invisible.

The history professor’s work on the subject began by accident. In 2013 she stumbled across a deserted clapboard house on the campus of George Mason University in Virginia. It was stuffed with the unsorted archives of a man who had died that year whose name is probably unfamiliar to you: James McGill Buchanan. She says the first thing she picked up was a stack of confidential letters concerning millions of dollars transferred to the university by the billionaire Charles Koch.

Her discoveries in that house of horrors reveal how Buchanan, in collaboration with business tycoons and the institutes they founded, developed a hidden programme for suppressing democracy on behalf of the very rich. The programme is now reshaping politics, and not just in the US.

James Buchanan ...argued that a society could not be considered free unless every citizen has the right to veto its decisions. What he meant by this was that no one should be taxed against their will. But the rich were being exploited by people who use their votes to demand money that others have earned, through involuntary taxes to support public spending and welfare. Allowing workers to form trade unions and imposing graduated income taxes were forms of “differential or discriminatory legislation” against the owners of capital.

Any clash between “freedom” (allowing the rich to do as they wish) and democracy should be resolved in favour of freedom. In his book The Limits of Liberty, he noted that “despotism may be the only organisational alternative to the political structure that we observe.” Despotism in defence of freedom.

His prescription was a “constitutional revolution”: creating irrevocable restraints to limit democratic choice. Sponsored throughout his working life by wealthy foundations, billionaires and corporations, he developed a theoretical account of what this constitutional revolution would look like, and a strategy for implementing it.


In 1980, he was able to put the programme into action. He was invited to Chile, where he helped the Pinochet dictatorship write a new constitution, which, partly through the clever devices Buchanan proposed, has proved impossible to reverse entirely. Amid the torture and killings, he advised the government to extend programmes of privatisation, austerity, monetary restraint, deregulation and the destruction of trade unions: a package that helped trigger economic collapse in 1982.

Buchanan saw stealth as crucial. He told his collaborators that “conspiratorial secrecy is at all times essential”. Instead of revealing their ultimate destination, they would proceed by incremental steps. For example, in seeking to destroy the social security system, they would claim to be saving it, arguing that it would fail without a series of radical “reforms”. (The same argument is used by those attacking the NHS). Gradually they would build a “counter-intelligentsia”, allied to a “vast network of political power” that would become the new establishment.

Through the network of thinktanks that Koch and other billionaires have sponsored, through their transformation of the Republican party, and the hundreds of millions they have poured into state congressional and judicial races, through the mass colonisation of Trump’s administration by members of this network and lethally effective campaigns against everything from public health to action on climate change, it would be fair to say that Buchanan’s vision is maturing in the US.


In one respect, Buchanan was right: there is an inherent conflict between what he called “economic freedom” and political liberty. Complete freedom for billionaires means poverty, insecurity, pollution and collapsing public services for everyone else. Because we will not vote for this, it can be delivered only through deception and authoritarian control. The choice we face is between unfettered capitalism and democracy. You cannot have both.

Buchanan’s programme is a prescription for totalitarian capitalism. And his disciples have only begun to implement it.


For more on Nancy McLean and her book, there's an interview here.


zoombats said...

Obviously the reasons why other powerful nations have always been in awe of China being able to pull it off. Free trade was the first real big instalment on the way to despot totalitarianism. Bust the unions, move the jobs offshore for a time and with the chaos and destruction, bring the jobs back to the broken begging labour force.

Anonymous said...

Funny how far-fetched conspiracy theories abound while the real conspiracy is ignored.

Anonymous said...

As US Justice Brandeis noted in a previous age of massive income inequality:

We learned long ago that liberty could be preserved only by limiting in some way the freedom of action of individuals; that otherwise liberty would necessarily yield to absolutism; and in the same way we have learned that unless there be regulation of competition, its excesses will lead to the destruction of competition, and monopoly will take its place.

We're back in the same place we were 100 years ago, with a new era of robber barons manipulating government to gut regulations and concentrate private power. The difference now is that the social coherence that led people to counter by forming labour unions and taking other collective action has been atomized by the oligarchs' sustained and highly successful propaganda campaign. As Gilens and Page established through empirical analysis three years ago, the US is an oligarchy, not a democracy.


The Mound of Sound said...

It's an effort to eradicate the last traces of progressivism which clears the path for the extinction of democracy. Increasingly, voices are speaking out about the rise of neo-feudalism in what had been thought of as liberal democracies.

Abraham Lincoln observed the constant struggle between labour and capital and held it was the duty of government to see that these competing interests were kept in a rough balance that slightly favoured labour. Neoliberal globalization of the sort embraced by every political leader in our country, purges Lincoln's philosophy and that of the progressives who followed.

Since Mulroney joined with Thatcher and Reagan in ushering in the age of neoliberal rule, no one has acknowledged that free trade deals advantage capital on political as well as economic terms. It creates inequality not just of wealth and income but also of political influence and those things, in each case, are siphoned out of the working classes, blue and white collar.

I won't suggest that Mulroney, Chretien, Martin, Harper and Trudeau were conspirators plotting the ruin of the Canadian people. Individually or taken collectively they weren't that smart. Their neglect has been largely inadvertent. They accepted an orthodoxy which is entirely belief-based, much like any religion.

I think the last leader we had with the intellectual prowess to see through this was Pierre Trudeau. They've all been technocratic duds since then, administrators, petit fonctionnaires. I noted this several years ago in a post in which I presented Harper as the "fractional prime minister" based on those aspects of governance with which he engaged and others which he simply ignored as though his mandate was only to govern partially.

Look at Trudeau, another fractional. His response to climate change? A carbon tax. There's a guy who is not engaging on the greatest threat facing our country and every other today.

Dana said...

As long as their fave teevee programs aren't affected, the shopping channel doesn't close up shop and PizzaPizza still delivers I don't see the majority of people even noticing.

The Mound of Sound said...

As I recall it (loosely), prior to the progressive era the general population was pretty complacent, more or less resigned to its fate. For a number of years I've been wondering if the populace, especially of the United States, hadn't been groomed, deliberately conditioned, to a return to those pre-progressive days. People have become stupid today, enough to leave them less capable of critical thinking and more easily distracted especially by messaging that appeals to their fears, biases and basest instincts. I'm less convinced than ever that this was inadvertent or accidental.

Dana said...

I don't think any of it was serendipity.

Owen Gray said...

The destruction of a strong, vibrant public education system renders citizens incapable of solving the problems they face. That destruction is now well advanced.

The Mound of Sound said...

In reverting to an era in which education and knowledge is not merely discounted but actively despised, the citizenry is hobbled by fetters they freely wear. Think of that recent study in which Republican respondents by a significant majority said that universities and colleges were not a positive force in America.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps those,
that fear education are the ones that cherish the gun?

That said there is something to fear from some universities that are shackled to big business?