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Neoliberalism is not fascism. But the fact that many famous neoliberals have been moved to support fascism to protect a regime from social democracy or socialism does give one pause. Hayek, Friedman, von Mises, among others, took such a turn under duress. They also had highly expansive views of what counted as a “socialist” threat. Neoliberalism is a set of practices that favors entrepreneurs and corporations, supports–often below the radar–massive state subsidies for the corporate estate, presses for radical deregulation of private markets, treats labor as an abstract factor of production, celebrates the authority of courts governed by a neoliberal jurisprudence, hates collective social movements on the left, protects imperial drives, strives to render democracy minimal, and moves to dismantle or weaken unions, social security, public schools and universal voting if and when the opportunities arise. Fascism is a form of capitalism that dismantles democracy, pushes intense nationalism, pursues racism, deploys big lies systematically, attacks vulnerable minorities to energize its base, corrupts courts, drives to make the media its mouthpiece, places police and intelligence agencies under its wing, colludes with foreign dictatorships, welcomes vigilante groups beneath a veneer of deniability, and jacks up the intensity of cultural ruthlessness.
So the two are different. Are there, however, enough affinities between them to help explain how the former—both in its leadership and its base of support–can migrate rapidly toward the latter during periods of stress? Stress that it often enough creates by its own hubristic market practices? Bearing in mind those noble neoliberals who today call out and hold out against Trumpism—they are on welcome public display on the Nicole Wallace show on MSNBC–recent experience in the United States suggests that many other neoliberals, in a situation of public stress, too easily slide toward the latter. A whole bunch of neoliberal Republicans in the American Congress, after all, now support or tolerate policies and belligerent practices they did not before the era of Trump. Many do not merely do so because they are cowed by the danger of threats to them in Republican primaries—they could, for instance, quit politics, or join the Democratic Party to stop aspirational fascism, or staunchly support the principles they embrace in those very Republican primaries and elections.
The recent book, Democracy in Chains, by Nancy MacLean, allows us to discern more closely how such slides and gallops can occur. It is focused on the life of a Nobel Prize winning neoliberal—who often called himself a libertarian—loved by the Mt Pelerin Society by the name of James Buchanan. I used to teach critically his book The Calculus of Consent in the 1980s. But MacLean’s book, through a close review of an archive not studied before, reveals how the public neoliberal pronouncements by Buchanan between the 1970s and 2000s were soon matched by a set of covert plans and financial funding designed to bring neoliberalism to power by “stealth” strategies. Buchanan had come to see, as had others, that the neoliberal agenda was not apt to be enacted by democratic means. So he adopted a two-track model.
That two-track model is revealing. So is the fact that this refugee from Tennessee—a former slave state and one that then imprisoned Blacks systematically to replace lost slave labor—seldom mentioned the specific conditions of Blacks or women as he articulated his abstract defense of liberty. So, too, is MacLean’s review of the ruthlessness and narcissism that marked the private and public persona of Buchanan, a review that invites attention to character affinities between him and Trump. Neither Buchanan, Trump, nor Charles Koch—the latter another key figure in the Buchanan story—thought highly of compromise. They play a hardball game.
The story starts, really, in Pinochet’s Chile, where Buchanan helped that repressive regime impose economic reforms backed by constitutional changes that would make it next to impossible to reverse them. They were called them constitutional “locks and bolts”. Buchanan never publicized the extensive role he played with Pinochet in Chile. Nor did he ever express public regret over its fascism, replete with prohibitions of free speech, practices of torture, and decrees making it illegal to organize dissident social movements.
Another key epiphany occurred in the 1980s in the States. Reagan’s massive tax cuts, which were promised to spur rapid growth to pay for them, instead created deficits three times larger than those Jimmy Carter had bequeathed. A public reaction set in as the regime proposed to make radical cuts in Social Security and Medicare to make up the shortfall. But those plans failed. After that failure, Buchanan concluded, consonant with advice by Milton Friedman, that such entrenched programs could only be weakened and dismantled through disinformation campaigns. Democracy had to be squeezed. Why? The majority of “takers” will never accept open plans to curtail their benefits to reduce taxes on a minority of “producers”. The takers, let’s call them for starters workers, the poor and the elderly, don’t even believe in “liberty”–meaning above all the freedom of entrepreneurs to roam freely in the market. So, you must pretend you are trying to save the very system you seek to unravel. Talk incessantly about its “crisis”. Divide its supporters into older, retired members, who will retain benefits, and younger ones who will have them cut. Celebrate the virtues of private retirement accounts. Propose to have the wealthy be removed from the system, doing all these things until general support for the social security system weakens and you are free to enact the next steps—steps not to be publicized in advance. Once you finally eliminate the system, people’s general confidence in the state will wane more. And new initiatives can be taken—again in a stealth manner—with respect to Medicare, pollution regulations, climate change, unemployment insurance, and democratic accountability.
Buchanan, to make a long story short, first increasingly bought into disinformation campaigns and later joined the main financier of his Center at George Mason University, Charles Koch, to support a series of voter suppression programs, neoliberal court appointees, anti-labor laws, and intensely funded political campaigns to shift the priorities of the state. The guiding idea was not only to change the rulers but to change the rules which govern districting, court jurisprudence, voter access and the like. Liberty is for producers, not takers, as Milt Romney also said later when he thought he was speaking only to a closeted room full of producers.
Buchanan’s abstract concern for market liberties, and the slanted liberties of association and speech they carried with them, never brought him to speak of the subjugated conditions of Blacks, women and other minorities in this society. The reason seems clear: their living grievances threaten abstract claims about a market system of impersonal rational coordination. The danger, to him, is mass democracy, which enlarges the power of “the state”. When Buchanan worried about the state he didn’t seem to mean Pinochet. He meant democratic processes through which the state is moved to support a collection of minorities who have been closed out of equality, participation, and representation. Buchanan, as did his hero Hayek, loved to think in abstractions, the kind of abstractions that cover up specific modes of suffering, grievance, and care under shiny terms. As MacLean also notes, Buchanan came to see that neoliberal (and libertarian) propaganda must aim at men more than women, because, on average, the latter are less predisposed to such messages.
The Koch/Buchanan alliance, consolidated through an Institute at George Mason University, soon became a Center to fund movements and generic models of reform on the Right as it informed American movers and shakers how to create constitutional “locks and bolts” in states and the federal government to secure desired reforms from dissident majorities once they were pushed through and their real effects became apparent. A stealth campaign, followed by opposition to “mob rule”. Wisconsin, for instance, became a key laboratory under the regime of Scott Walker, both enacting draconian policies and pursuing constitutional changes to secure them from future majorities. To discern the severity of the stealth activities, consider how one of Buchanan’s lieutenants, Charles Rowley, eventually turned against them. He became upset when a new Chair of the economics department summarily fired all untenured economists to replace them with a single breed of libertarians. As summarized by MacLean, two things above all dismayed Rowley, who retained his neoliberal outlook but opposed the stealth practices. “First the sheer scale of the riches the wealthy individuals brought to bear turned out to have subtle, even seductive power. And second, under the influence of one wealthy individual, in particular, the movement was turning to an equally troubling form of coercion: achieving its ends essentially through trickery, through deceiving people about its real intentions to go to a place which, on their own given complete information, they would not go.” (p. 208) It’s like saying “repeal and replace Obamacare” while planning only to make the first move. And then turn the same trick again in several other domains. Eventually, Buchanan himself grew wary of Koch, in a setting where two narcissistic, authoritarian men struggled to control the same Center. The money man won out. In Rowley’s own words Koch, the billionaire donor, “had no scruples concerning the manipulation of scholarship.”
Neoliberalism, its critics know so well, periodically spawns the economic crises its hubristic devotees promise will not happen. It also works to foster voter suppression, unlimited dark campaign contributions, extreme gerrymandered districts, take away worker benefits, appoint judges at state and national levels governed by neoliberal jurisprudence, treat voter suppression tactics to be needed to eliminate phantom voter fraud, oppose affirmative action, to weaken labor unions, and attack universal health care.
How many neoliberal Republicans called out Donald Trump, for instance, when he launched his presidential campaign by pretending insistently for six long years (with absolutely no evidence) that the first African American President held office illegally. Obama was guilty until proven innocent, according to that Donald Trump. How many stepped to the plate to acknowledge galloping climate change in the face of those who have called it a hoax against all the available evidence? What about the appointment of a judge who lied about his previous record, had trouble with his drinking and temper, and probably tried to rape a young girl when they were in high school? What about Trump’s constant suggestions that minorities are guilty until found innocent, punctuated by assertions that men applying for high government positions and accused of harassment must be treated as innocent unless a court of law finds them guilty. Quiet whispers from neoliberals of regret and suspicion against Trumpism on these issues, by the way, do not cut the mustard. Neoliberal stealth tactics and neofascist Big Lies have moved too close together for comfort.
One thing that emerged out of the long-term two track campaigns of neoliberalism is a powerful wealth/income concentration machine joined to a series of precarious and suffering minorities, including so many urban Blacks and poor whites. With labor unions, too, caught in a squeeze. Donald Trump could then play on the prejudices and insecurities created; he thus found himself in a position to incite large segments of the white labor and lower middle classes to return to the old days, while retaining the support of a huge segment of the wealthy, donor class. The disinformation campaigns of the old neoliberal vanguard can too easily slide into the Big Lie campaigns Trump pursues in the service of White Triumphalism, intense nationalism, misogyny, the reduction of critical social movements to mob rule, and militant anti-immigration campaigns. The long time con man and money launderer has not, then, merely cowed a neoliberal elite that had pointed in a different direction. He has pulled its stealth campaigns into channels that most find more palatable than other social visions in circulation.
The memories of Hayek and Friedman in this respect return to haunt us. It need not surprise us, given MacLean’s archival history, that the latest Trump Supreme Court appointee supports neoliberal policies in the domains of corporate deregulation, medical care, restrictive voter laws, limits on civil rights, gerrymandering and like while also trumpeting notions of a sovereign president so dear to the dark heart of Donald Trump—the aspirational fascist who conspired with Russia to win an electoral college majority in 2016. We must light a candle for those noble neoliberals who resist the slide we are witnessing before our very eyes, as we also keep both eyes open with respect to the wider crossing between neoliberalism and neofascism.
The old, all so familiar, Hayek story of how socialism and social democracy are always on the “road to serfdom” is a fairy tale that has not in fact occurred. The transition, however, from neoliberalism to virulent fascist movements has occurred before and could do so again. The current fascist electoral campaign rallies by Donald Trump are designed to up the ante of charges against liberals and the Left by several decibel levels so that people will temporarily forget all the horrible things he has done and will do if Republicans keep both houses. They include halting or weakening the Mueller investigation, eliminating transgender rights, consolidating Trump control over intelligence agencies and the courts, reversing the remaining shreds of ObamaCare, upscaling attacks on universal voting, weakening the media, creating horrendous immigration laws, encouraging vigilante drives, and many other things yet. Drive someone to a voting precinct on election day and give them a copy of the MacLean book a week before you do.