By Jim Miller
Nancy MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America” is the single most important new book for progressives to read this year if they want to understand how we got to the dark moment of the present.
As I noted in my recent column on the right-wing assault on public sector unions, MacLean takes us to the roots of the current crisis via an intellectual history of James McGill Buchanan, the thinker whose work, more than anyone else’s, informs the machinations of the Kochtopus, that shadowy network of interlinked billionaire-funded right-wing think tanks driving American politics.
If you want to know the central ideas behind the “dark money” that Jane Mayer’s seminal book addresses and the philosophical origins of the neoliberalism that Naomi Klein analyzes in her work, MacLean’s text is the key. In it, we learn that Buchanan is the intellectual godfather of an intentionally dishonest, stealth movement by the right to “save capitalism from democracy—permanently.”
MacLean’s study of Buchanan’s work and history gives us a disturbing view of “the germ of today’s billionaires’ bid to shackle democracy” and deliver a libertarian Utopia where “property rights supremacists would rather let people die than receive health care assistance or antismoking counsel from government.”
She exposes an extremism in defense of “liberty” strictly defined as the freedom of the propertied elite from any form of “collective gangsterism.” It is a worldview so rigid that its adherents “would rather invite global ecological and social catastrophe than allow regulatory restrictions on economic liberty.”
Buchanan was a southerner whose great movement was born out of the crucible of the battle to undermine what he and his fellow white confederates saw as the oppressive government overreach resulting from the Brown vs Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court. For them, the movements for labor rights, civil rights, ecological protection, and/or any other variety of government action which taxed anyone without universal consent to do public good was tyranny of the worst sort —a manifestation of “a modern version of mob attempts to take by force what the takers had no right to: the fruits of another person’s efforts.”
Hence was born the stunningly radical anti-modernist vision of the contemporary American right. Buchanan’s agenda from his days fighting civil rights and the desegregation of public schools to his time advising Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship on how to dismantle democracy in Chile was calculated to frustrate what he saw as the “obstacle” of our “empathy” and deliver a “crippling division among the people so as to end any interference with what those who held vast power over others believed should be their prerogatives.”
When Buchanan landed at UCLA for a period during the late sixties he thought of it as “a lunatic asylum” and was “uncomfortable with the number of African Americans living in the city and attending UCLA.” After a visit to San Diego State University, he approvingly observed that there were “very few blacks in attendance” and that the students seemed “more orderly.”
His response to the chaos he perceived not just at UCLA but in the country as a whole was to call for the widespread repression of student activists, and, in order to win the long war, he and his colleagues thought the elite needed to make use of “the social control function of denying a liberal arts education to young people from lower income families who had not saved to pay for it.” That way, they mused, those who likely wouldn’t make it “into management” but still might “raise trouble” would not have “their sights raised.”
This kind of “totalitarian capitalism” as the Guardian review of the book calls it, is the hallmark of Buchanan’s thinking and would come to inform the entire agenda of the American right:
[I]n 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.
Buchanan was strongly influenced by both the neoliberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, and the property supremacism of John C. Calhoun, who argued in the first half of the 19th century that freedom consists of the absolute right to use your property (including your slaves) however you may wish; any institution that impinges on this right is an agent of oppression, exploiting men of property on behalf of the undeserving masses.
James Buchanan brought these influences together to create what he called public choice theory. He 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.
This oppression of the rich through unjust taxation which he defined as any form of taxation without 100% approval by all citizens was what Buchanan spent his academic and political career fighting with all he had at his disposal. This perverse definition of “freedom” as protection of oligarchy was so sacrosanct that he felt what the United States ultimately needed was a “constitutional revolution” that would bring to us what the good people of Chile were gifted by the Pinochet junta—a constitution with “locks and bolts” preventing any real collective power over the opulent minority.
Sadly, as horrifying as this all sounds, MacLean doesn’t allow her readers to comfortably imagine that this program is something that is lurking in the dark margins of the American right. As the Guardian piece smartly observes, Buchanan’s history is simply “the missing chapter” that illuminates not the nature of the fringe but rather the current mainstream of American politics brought to us by Buchanan’s most eager students, Charles Koch and his vast network of allies who have taken over the Republican Party, USA:
Through the network of think tanks 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.
Of course, none of this was ever on any ballot but that was by design. As MacLean ably documents, the stealth strategy of those following Buchanan’s playbook is to never tell the truth. Hence, we are never offered a choice between utterly unregulated dog eat dog capitalism and democracy, instead, we are sold one disingenuously packaged “market reform” after another until the evil that is the public sector is small enough to, as Grover Norquist once said, “drown in a bathtub.”
What will be left is a Social Darwinist nightmare where the obstacles of empathy, the collective interest, and the public good are nothing but quaint relics of the past.