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Three new political books: capsule reviews of Tony Judt (Ill Fares the Land), Thomas Frank (Pity the Billionaire), and Chris Hedges (The World As It Is).

Tony Judt: Ill Fares the Land; Penguin Press, New York; 2010.

A friend recently said that our choice today is between a corporate state (the U. S. model) and totalitarian capitalism (the Chinese model). Not so long ago the choice was between communism and social democracy. The background of that story is worth knowing.

I find a visceral pleasure in reading an intelligent book that is written–that is, composed of sentences, distinctly, rather than, as is more common, a train of words and language solely employed to convey a story or thesis. The sense of being “written” is odd in this case, as the book was dictated. Tony Judt, one of our finest historians and political thinkers, was totally paralyzed by ALS, “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” when he wrote this book. He would compose each chapter at night when he couldn’t sleep, and dictate it in the morning. A good prose style is invisible, and it shows. We might think of this book as Judt’s last will and testament.

Ill Fares the Land is a paean to social democracy—a term Europeans are more familiar with than Americans. More than that, it surveys some recent political and economic history—the last eighty years or so—that is all too easily forgotten today. America has not always been the most economically unequal of all the major industrialized nations. In fact, the contrary was once the difference between the United States and Europe—America was the “land of opportunity.”

For about a hundred years, until the 1980s, the distastefulness of “immoderate wealth” in the face of the dire poverty of others was a widely held sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic, and though each country’s story was different, there was a general trend in the advanced countries to move away from massive and entrenched economic inequality. This was accomplished through progressive taxation, as well as social, educational, and health programs for the poor. For thirty years now these programs, which most of us take for granted, have been actively dismantled.

Two of the chapter titles are “The Way We Live Now” and “The World We Have Lost,” where Judt, crisply and with a few choice graphs, outlines the correlation of massive inequality with squalor, crime, the lack of social mobility, life expectancy, infant mortality, prison population, mental illness, obesity, and a number of other social ills. Conversely, in the more egalitarian societies, researchers report a general sense of trust, belonging, and “in it all together.” Judt places some of the blame for the decline of interest in, or even lip service to, “the general good” in his own generation, in the narcissism and “do you own thing” attitudes of the Sixties. (That makes it my fault. Sorry. We thought we were changing the world.)

Judt is an intellectual historian, and along with judicious quotes from Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, there are brief but cogent enough introductions to Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Joseph Schumpeter, Karl Popper, and Peter Drucker to be able to place them in the constellation of the economic thinkers invoked in much current theory.

Even if you are ideologically against collective action for the general good—that is, “big government”—you should still know your history. This is a short book, but an excellent start.

Incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best that we can hope for, and probably all we should seek. Others have spent the last three decades methodically unraveling and destabilizing them: this should make us much angrier than we are. . . .

To abandon the labors of a century is to betray those who came before us as well as generations yet to come. It would be pleasing—but misleading—to promise that social democracy, or something like it, represents the future that we would paint for ourselves in an ideal world. But this would be to return to discredited story-telling. Social democracy does not represent an ideal future; it does not even represent the ideal past. But among the options available to us today, it is better than anything else to hand.
–Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land

Thomas Frank: Pity the Billionaire; The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right; Metropolitan Books, New York; 2012.

I have four of Thomas Frank’s books on the political shelf of my library, and this is a shelf where books tend to have a short lifespan. The other books by Frank are
* The Conquest of Cool; Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise
of Hip Consumerism; 1997: about how quickly countercultural styles are co-opted by the mainstream market.

* One Market Under God; Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy; 2000: how the supposed “democracy” of the market has made the world a better place for billionaires.

* What’s the Matter with Kansas?; How Conservatives Won the Heart of America; 2004: why the increasingly impoverished vote against their economic ineterests.

Conceptually, Pity the Billionaire is a continuation or updating of What’s the Matter with Kansas? But while the conservative backlash of the 90s focused on social issues (abortion, gays, school prayer), the new reaction, as exemplified by the Tea Party, generally avoids social issues and is focused on economics.

The Kansas book investigates why the downtrodden working class in the heartland abandoned the Democrats to vote against their own economic interest with the Republican Party. A Kansas boy himself, Frank’s perspectives are warm, insightful, and fairly satisfying. And it is in the Kansas book where Frank tells the wonderful story about the grassroots precinct takeover of the Republicans, once the party only of the rich who lived on the Heights. When Frank was a boy, as he tells the story, the Heights were where the doctors and lawyers lived. Everyone else lived in the flats, where they had well-kept lawns in front of their modest houses, excellent schools, good jobs, and strong unions. Today the flats are a ruins, with empty houses, decrepit schools, and massive unemployment—the result of corporate outsourcing, government budget cuts, and soaring CEO salaries. So these are the people who pulled themselves together, took over the Republican Party, and marched on the Heights where the Very Rich lived in giant mansions—now far too pricey for mere doctors or lawyers,.

Now the Very Rich, who had all been to college and mostly believed in things like geology and evolution, trembled behind their shuttered windows as the mob of outraged commoners with their pitchforks advanced, but agreed to hear their demands. Which were: “We demand to lower your taxes.”

That story was the reason I bought his other books.

Pity the Billionaire brings the same theme up to date, exploring why the worst economy since the 1930s can spawn a conservative populism embracing starkly retrograde economic ideas, especially in “red” states receiving federal aid and subsidies far above the average. Bizarrely, the pre-Depression economic theories go along with a revival of Ayn Rand. Alan Greenspan was a Rand protégé, but after the economic collapse he recanted his faith in the infallibility of the market. So did almost everyone else. Onetime hard-line unfettered free marketeers were saying “We’re all Keynesians now.” The people were outraged at the bailouts and demanding reform and financial oversight. The market had had its chance and had blown it big time. Can you still remember?

Then what happened? It’s all kind of blurry, which is surprising since this was only four years ago, but suddenly politicians were talking about trickle-down economics and that the problem was the government and government regulations. Frank places a lot of the problem with the lack of a competing ideology on the Left—everyone was still afraid of being called a “liberal.” The Right filled the void with a coherent story, even if it had little to do with history.

This book was written just before the appearance of the Occupy movement, which, despite the lack of ideology, managed to take the Tea Party off of the front pages. It’s a shame the Occupiers have no political party to join. Or is it?

The thirties, as we know them in the Internet age, are very different from the thirties we know from the canonical literature of the time or the standard histories of the period. To Google nearly any aspect of the first two Roosevelt administrations is to encounter almost immediately the obsessive loathing for the New Deal felt by conservative and libertarian economists. You can find the works of scholars like Arthur Schlesinger or Irving Bernstein or Michael Denning or Robert McElvaine down at the library if you wish, but if you begin your research on the Internet, the experts you will encounter first are likely to be Amity Shales, the author who has tried to recapture FDR’s expression “the forgotten man” for conservatism; or the bitter libertarian economists of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, proving to one another over and over again that the New Deal was not necessary, did not help, and very probably made the Depression worse. Of course Yip Harburg was bemoaning government meddling when he wrote “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” What else was there to bemoan?”
–Thomas Frank, Pity the Billionaire

Chris Hedges: The World As It Is; Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress; Truthdig/Nation Books, New York, 2010.

Chris Hedges, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and numerous other commendations, worked as a war correspondent in Central America and Africa for twenty years. He left the New York Times after being formally reprimanded for remarks he made at a commencement address critical of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Since then he has been writing books and columns for Truthdig.

All of the short essays in The World As It Is originally appeared on Truthdig, and that may account for their often polemical cast. Hedges writes with moral outrage—in his case appropriate: he was there; he saw it. Still, one sometimes wishes for Hedges to stretch out into more detailed and sustained analysis—he’s proven that he is capable of it. That said, there are plenty of facts and figures and correctives to government and corporate propaganda to make this a good read. Many familiar figures make extended appearances: Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Wendell Berry, Dennis Kucinich, Bill McKibben, and others.

Some of Hedges’ most bitter invectives are directed at the “liberals,” his should-be allies who have mostly sold out to the corporate hegemony—but there is plenty of blame to go around. Hedges gives a nod to Albert Camus, and calls for a stance of rebellion.

I bought the book for its subtitle.

Rebellion allows us to be free and independent human beings, but rebellion also chips away, however imperceptibly, at the edifice of the oppressor and sustains the dim flames of hope and love. And in moments of profound human despair these flames are never insignificant. They keep alive the capacity to be human. We must become, as Camus said, so absolutely free that “existence is an act of rebellion.” Those who do not rebel in our age of totalitarian capitalism and who convince themselves that there is no alternative to collaboration are complicit in their own enslavement. They commit spiritual and moral suicide.
Chris Hedges, The World As It Is

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