25 January 2012

Thomas Frank's PITY THE BILLIONAIRE; or, What's the matter with liberals?

For someone who once ran a magazine called The Baffler, Thomas Frank is good at affecting bafflement. His great theme since publishing What's the Matter With Kansas? has been his dismay at why working-class Americans don't vote according to what he considers their rational class interests. His approach infuriates Republicans and even discomfits some Democrats, since Frank seems, perhaps arrogantly, to tell voters what should matter to them, and why what seems to matter shouldn't. For some, he seems to peddle another version of the Marxist concept of "false consciousness," but everything he writes really follows from his discovery in The Conquest of Cool of capitalism's ability to co-opt any seemingly adversarial mindset so long as that mentality is capable of expression through buying things. Frank's lifework is an expose of how the Establishment, which for him is always the rich first, commodifies dissent and rallies it to the Establishment's defense. Pity the Billionaire is Frank's latest chapter, his attempt to explain why the 2008 economic crash resulted not in a populist crackdown on capitalism, as did the 1929 crash, but in yet another revival of the Republican party and an even more fanatical embrace of a free-enterprise ideology that should have been discredited for a generation.

Frank is determined to attribute the unlikely events of 2010 to people's attitudes about the economy. He rejects out of hand explanations that focus on the alleged bigotry of Tea Partiers. From his own encounters with TPs and visits to TP events, Frank finds little evidence of overt racism or other hatreds. He considers Democrats' focus on isolated obvious expressions of bigotry a comfortable tactic to avoid engagement with the uncomfortably legitimate concerns of populists who, through Democratic neglect, turn to the TPs and the GOP to express their anger.  But if Frank dismisses bigotry as a major factor in the current reaction, he seems to concede that Americans in general are more comprehensively hateful than they were eighty years ago, during the last great economic slump. That is, he sees little of the humane solidarity that emerged during the Great Depression and more individual indifference to the failures and suffering of other people, regardless of their race, religion or sexual preference. From Frank's perspective, the Tea Parties are not a movement of Angry White Men, but Angry Small Businessmen and those who identify with that class, though they may be far wealthier. The typical Frankian paradox in play here is that the party and lobbies of Big Business have reversed a mass anger originally directed at that same party and those same lobbies by rebranding themselves as the champions of Small Business while blaming the crash and slump on Big Government. Pity the Billionaire attempts to explain how this strategy managed to work. After running through the contradictions and absurdities of Tea Party rhetoric, thus demonstrating why 2010 is so hard to explain, Frank leaves himself with two potential explanations, one far less plausible than the other.

Frank devotes a chapter of his slim volume -- 187 pages of text plus some substantial endnotes -- to his apparent belief that large numbers of Americans have actually been corrupted by reading Atlas Shrugged. He sees Ayn Rand as a kind of precursor of his conquest of cool, claiming that she used the format and style of a leftist 1930s protest novel to reverse its moral poles, portraying the genius entrepreneurs as the truly exploited working class and salt of the earth. He also appears to trace the country's current compassion deficit, as measured by Republican success, to Rand's assertion of working-class utter dependence upon entrepreneurial genius and her insinuation that the masses deserve death for their lack of gratitude to free enterprise and their incompetence in the absence of entrepreneurial guidance. I'm not claiming that Frank considers Rand a necessary or sufficient cause of the current national mood, but I do wonder, despite the millions of sales for Atlas Shrugged, whether Americans need to learn lack of compassion or contempt for the poor from any novel, as Frank suggests that many did.

A more interesting claim is that Democrats have themselves to blame for losing their moment. After expressing moral horror at the GOP-TP ideology of merciless "pure" capitalism, Frank opens his penultimate chapter by noting that, however horrible that ideology, it's "better than nothing" (emphasis in the original). After indicting the idea of ideology itself, and comparing today's free-market fanatics with the spellbound acolytes of Bolshevism, Frank appears to indict Democrats for a lack of ideology. They suffer instead from a technocratic idealism, the notorious liberal tendency to wish for reasoned and reasonable solutions that don't really hurt or even annoy anyone. That tendency is exacerbated, Frank suggests -- taking as his most damning evidence a passage from one of President Obama's memoirs -- as liberal politicians grow more dependent on campaign donations from Big Business and Wall Street and more understanding of those entities' viewpoints. Taking their lead from Obama, Democrats have refused to be angry when there's plenty, in Frank's view, to be angry at. Frank even goes so far as to concede that small businessmen have some cause for complaint against regulations -- he makes this point to note that Big Business doesn't really have the same causes for complaint, yet pretends to. Just about everyone, Frank assumes, has a right to be angry at Wall Street for driving our economy off a cliff, but Democrats seem more uncomfortable with anger today than they were 80 years ago -- perhaps because, as liberals, they have trouble distinguishing anger from hate. Perhaps they're too legalistic as well, unwilling to see the impressionistic difference between a criminal and a "crook." My guess is that Frank wanted Democrats to call capitalists crooks, if not criminals. By not doing so, he argues, they allowed Republicans to identify a different class of crooks as the true culprits in the crash. People in crisis times crave ideology or something like it, a Frankian fact that helps explain the Marxism of many in the 1930s. That something like it may be something as simple as a moral sense, the certitude that what Wall Street did was wrong or crooked, that Democrats can't seem to articulate properly, despite their articulate President.

The decline of the Democrats into dull technocracy is a subject that requires more detailed analysis than Frank can provide in one chapter, or possibly at any length. It clearly leaves him demoralized, since he closes without calling for a populist takeover or a third party but with a doomsday scenario of social disintegration and fanatical war of "all against all." He may have convinced himself by now of the conquest-of-cool's invincibility, of capital's ability to co-opt everything in its own defense. As he sees it, the pursuit of idealized "true" capitalism has become something like a Freudian death-drive, indifferent to consequences in its ruthless fidelity to the event -- to borrow terminology Frank himself doesn't use. Someone like Slavoj Zizek, who combines Marxism and psychoanalysis, may be a necessary supplement to Frank's hermeneutics. I get the sense that Zizek and Frank might not get along, given Frank's disdain for "cultural studies" and related academic disciplines, but if the stakes are as dire as Frank portrays them, it's also true that he doesn't have all the pieces to put the puzzle of American civilizational decline together. There may never be enough pieces, or even a puzzle. Our challenge may not be to figure out why things went wrong, but how to put things right -- and it's not clear how much Frank's book, which will most likely be read as a left-Menckenesque satire on rightist stupidity, will actually help matters.


Calmoderate said...

Your comment that what is left to be done is to figure out how to put things right is correct. In the process of trying to do that, we should be able to largely figure out why things went wrong. There is a reasonable short list of things that in all likelihood were the key factors in leading us into decline, e.g., (i) undue influence by special interests and their money, (ii) a real problem in getting at the unspun truth of essentially anything in the face of hard core ideologies that spin essentially everything and (iii) a lack of concensus about what makes sense or is reasonable in the face of all the spin.

Unfortunately, if that list of evils is at least mostly correct, we are going to have a heck of a time trying to put things right. I am beginning to think that it makes sense to establish an open information source that lays out facts (as seen by all sides) and makes policy suggestions coming from the main viewpoints (conservative, liberal and moderate compromise) and the ususally omitted pragmatic viewpoint (which could be any of the three or none of them) would at least let people see how facts can and do affect perceptions of reality and how that in turn leads to differing preferred policies. IMHO, the three main viewpoints have collectively failed because they have held power. What's left is to try pragmatism based on unspun facts and without bias from left, right or other political and/or religious ideology.

Other than that, I have no idea of how to even try to fix what is obviously broken. Nobody trusts what we have now, so I guess building up something (sort of like a Sunshine Institute for political malcontents looking for a home) that is scrupulously transparent just might generate some trust. That just might lead to a narrowing of the huge gaps in perceptions of reality that the left, right and center typically display. That just might lead to at least some concensus. Maybe.

But, maybe not. People sure do like their lideology and the distorted visions of reality that it creates, that's for sure. Its worth a try.

Anonymous said...

@Calmoderate: Basically what needs to happen is that the entire 2 party system needs to be destroyed and replaced with multiple parties which are closer to representing the various views/needs/wants of voter demographics.

Really, the basis of the problem can be boiled down to greed and ideology. Both of which are a part of human nature. Until the faults in human nature are admitted and dealt with, there can be no real solution.

Calmoderate said...


Good comments. As far as new parties goes, I agree. The two have too much to lose to accept real change (at least as I define it).

I don't know if I would call greed and ideology human 'faults'. We are what we are. We are not perfect. Emotion can and often does dominate reason. Criticizing political ideology needs to be done carefully. That is similar to criticizing religion. It makes no sense criticize religion in the realm of human spiritual needs. That is just an innate human trait or need. However, it is fair to criticize the role of political/religious ideology in politics because that intrudes on everyone and their interests.

I completely agree that human nature needs to be acknowledged and dealt with. That does need to be done carefully and with true respect.

The question is how to be respectful and not come off as some arrogant s**t but still show real spine in the face of withering counterattack.

I tried a first generation version for that kind of online discourse (http://california-moderate.blogspot.com/2011/12/best-centrist-party-part-3-special_27.html; also posted at Rise of the Center shortly thereafter), but that first version failed to interest folks who are discontented with politics as usual. I have devised a second generation as means to try to interest discontents in forming a new party. However, I am frankly tired of working alone. Anyone here interested in a collaboration?

I have limited time to do research and most topics require a lot of time to get to the point where intelligent, pragmatic political comments and criticisms are reasonably well-informed and articulated.

I am trolling moderate/centrist websites looking for collaborators. If I find none, then I will back away from this dissident politics stuff. I have spent hundreds of hours trying to mount a real attack on the two party system but am ready to call it quits if there is no interest in my approach or some better way to attack the two parties.

Know anyone who might be interested in version 2 of the attack plan and helping out with it? If not, don't respond. I am easy to contact - my email is at the link above.