Monday, February 13, 2012

Pity the Billionaire

Thomas Frank. Pity the Billionaire: the Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right. New York: Henry Holt, 2012

Reviewed by T. Hatch

Columnist, author, and former editor of the Baffler Thomas Frank asks the question, in his latest book Pity the Billionaire, how is it possible that the political Right thrived in the 2010 elections despite the economic meltdown of 2008? Why then were the trajectories of the 1932 and 2008 elections so different?  One would think that the “newest Right” should have been as discredited as Herbert Hoover with no chance to win an election anytime soon. Yet, alas, they did.

Frank argues that the “newest Right” is something like a bunch of zombies in a cheesy Hollywood movie;  the undead have amazing recuperative powers. In early 2009 the chattering class was presiding over the funeral of the Republican Party.  By August of that year the Democrats were back on their heels playing defense at town hall meetings where health care reform was the topic.  By 2010 the Democrats were in full retreat suffering a historically devastating defeat in the midterm elections. “If you had brought the world’s teenaged anarchists together in some great international congress and asked them to design an ideal crisis they could not have discredited market-based civilization more completely than did the crash of 2008” (p.26).  Pity the Billionaire seeks to answer the question of why this counter-intuitive conservative resurgence in 2010 could have taken place.

The real genius of the newest Right has been to unleash the “cynical idealism of billionaire America” (p.44) on a country ready for its cold embrace.  The brilliance of equating “we the people” with derivatives traders and convincing the victims of the great recession that not only would it be wrong and a form of “class warfare” to criticize investment bankers, but that they should show some sympathy for the beleaguered billionaire class, is not to be underestimated.  This peculiar form of billionaire inspired populism maintains that markets are democratic systems with consumers and investors making their desires known through the naturally recurring phenomenon of price auction theory.  Whereas market populism used to be the domain of the wealthy, now it is for the masses.

A significant part of Pity the Billionaire is basically an ethnography of the Tea Party Movement. The Tea Party is little more than the petit bourgeois white supremacist wing of the Republican Party. With their own cable news channel as a megaphone,  and a corporate media that could not get enough of their eccentric act, they were effective in framing the issue as choice between a small business utopia and a government imposed socialism.  Frank, who has read C. Wright Mills carefully, well understands that small business is useful to big business as a mascot for the ideology of utopian capitalism. Using small business folklore as the basis for a populist front is the preferred methodology of the corporate robber barons.  In this respect the top down faux populism of the Tea Party represents this triumph of three decades of neoliberal ideology.

Whereas the top down construction of a phony populism was successful, the Obama administration’s efforts at bailing out the economy from on high, at the expense of multitude, were politically less so.  F.D.R. worked to save and restructure the economy from the bottom up.  Rather than placing itself at the forefront of the populist anger against Wall Street (breaking up the banks, stopping the foreclosures, jailing the criminals etc.) the Obama administration made itself the embodiment of cronyism, i.e., instead of another F.D.R. we got Clinton II.  Not only was catering to Wall Street an act of moral cowardice it was a huge tactical error which allowed the Right to gather itself and quickly counterattack.

The delusions of the Right are situated in the shibboleth of an unfettered free market. However, Obama and the modern Democratic Party are equally delusional. The Democrats cognitive break with reality is not based on economics but emanates from the world of political science according to Frank.  Their collective hallucination manifests itself in a “cult of centrism and compromise.” Like another tall gaunt politician of yesteryear, Obama must have imagined himself waving a piece of paper in the air proclaiming, “We have bi-partisan consensus in our time!” Frank states that “President Obama tries to stay on the good side of companies like Goldman Sachs and BP even as he desperately drives his hook-and-ladder around a world they have set on fire.” (p. 136) Fearful that he might be seen as a radical, Obama has dutifully carried the water for Wall Street.

Another explanation for the politically inexplicable may be that we were cheated out of seeing the full effects of the train wreck. The banking industry did not suffer the consequences of a collapse because the much maligned bureaucracy in Washington D.C. saved them.  The deus ex machina of the federal government saved the ungrateful lords of Wall Street. As thanks, the Right has been able to shift the blame from the scene of the crime to Washington D.C.

Find this book (and place a hold on it!) at the Free Library of Philadelphia: McN 12336742 (at about eleven branches, and checked out or on its way to a branch to be checked out.)

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