Book Review – Democracy in Chains

Max Ogden

I have rarely accepted conspiracies, which are often embraced too readily. What often appears as a conspiracy is usually a stuff up, or a group or a class, acting in the way one would expect.

I have changed somewhat after reading Democracy in Chains – The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, by Nancy MacLean. She lays out the history of the US Right from the 1830s, and it is not a pretty picture.

She begins in the eighteen thirties, with John C Calhoun, a former Vice President, and South Carolina Senator, when he began his crusade to preserve and extend the power of wealth, and railed against the Madison constitution as being too democratic. He cleverly, and with some success, set out to convince slave owners, and the wider community in the South, that as the creators of wealth, they are the group who are downtrodden, while those calling for the abolition of slavery are the elites, and the wasteful class living off the taxes of slave owners.

As we know, the civil war, at enormous cost, put an end to slavery, at least in the form it existed then. That was a major setback for the ideas of Calhoun and his supporters.But those who have followed him have often suffered setbacks, some very serious, but to this day, they go back, examine the lessons, continue their strategies, and are prepared to work and plan for decades ahead.

Possibly the most influential anti-hero is Nobel Prize winning economist, James Buchanan, who like several of the people who stroll this history, is described as driven, mean, rude, arrogant with an enormous ego, but never sought the limelight as he liked to work in the shadows. These were not very nice people. First from Virginia Tech., the west coast, and finally George Mason University he proselytised his ideology for strengthening the ruling class hold on power and wealth.

Buchanan, although he was not at their first meeting, became an important member of the Mont Pelerin Society, which emanated from a group of Americans – mainly from Chicago University, UK, Germany, Austrians, who met in nineteen forty seven in Switzerland, under the leadership of Frederik A Hayek, whose book “Road to Serfdom” had created excitement among right wing economists. They laid out a strategy to prevent the spread of socialist and collectivist ideas. This group has proved to be incredibly influential ever since. An object lesson in understanding how ideas are central to strategy.

By the seventies the likes of Buchanan, and several of his ilk, were picked up by the billionaire Koch brothers, as purveyors of exactly what they had been looking for regarding ideas and strategies for protecting their wealth and power. Since then, they and other wealthy colleagues have provided hundreds of millions of dollars funding to their think tanks.

Their major objectives are: Breakdown democracy and where possible eradicate it; Have government stripped of every service except that of defence and property rights; Have education privatised, which is a high priority; Smash any form of collectivism, especially unions; Minimise tax so it only funds defence and private property.

They then lay out strategies for achieving their objectives. For example, deprive government of services, first have the services sub-contracted out, and then use that experience to have it fully privatised, by making it extremely difficult for the government to take it back.

With public education, introduce various forms of testing, e.g. NAPLAN, manipulate the statistics regardless of the results to embarrass the public system, as a prelude to private takeover, e.g. Charter schools in the US, or individual vouchers so students can shop around private schools. All sounds familiar.

Tie up democratic rights within very difficult to change constitutions. Buchanan and his team were invited by Pinochet soon after he took power in Chile in nineteen seventy three, to write a new constitution. They spent quite some time on it, and it was eventually voted on by an electorate, severely curtailed by rules which meant only a small percentage of Chileans could vote. However that constitution is so tight that even to this day under more progressive governments it is almost impossible to change. Requiring at least two thirds of a majority for change, whenever a Chilean government tries to tackle the wealthy, because of the constitution they can mobilise the required one third to protect themselves.

The US constitution, which they regard as too democratic, is very difficult to change, so their strategy is to concentrate on appointments of judges at all levels of the judiciary, blocking, and active measures before the Supreme Court. By the mid-nineties forty percent of all Federal judges had been through training at the various think tanks the Right and Koch Brothers fund.

Learning from Calhoun, they have proved very adept at posing as part of the ordinary people, suggesting that they are outsiders, and that everyone else is part of the elite. They have set out, with some success, to convince the wider public that like slave owners, it is the wealthy who create wealth, taxes, jobs, so they are the underdogs in US society, who should be supported. Not workers, unemployed, the poor, those on welfare, as they are living off the wealthy. Even the titles of their many think tanks are benign, giving the impression of being neutral. By the way, Rubio was their preferred Presidential candidate, but when he dropped out, their man is Pence who has been intimately involved with the Koch brothers for decades. Perhaps even more dangerous than Trump.

They have had severe setbacks. However they go back and carefully examine where they went wrong, how they may have overreached, etc. They then return with a new strategy and are happy to think decades down the track, and spend many millions to achieve their objectives.

They are ruthless. In one case while their think tank was stationed in Virginia Tech, Buchanan demanded that one of his team, who had never completed his economics degree, and was in fact their major political lobbyist, be made professor. The Administration rejected the request four times, so Buchanan upped stakes and shifted to George Mason University. Another reason for the move was that GM University is in the suburbs of Washington DC, so they had a more intimate relationship with Congress, and the members whom they never hesitate to threaten, cajole, and standover to follow their policies. Buchanan died in two thousand and thirteen.

This brings me to an important article by Peter Hartcher in The Age, 14/10/17, which demonstrates the success of the Buchanan/Koch strategies. Quoting from recent research by the well regarded PEW Research Centre, he shows how ideological and psychological changes wrought by constant campaigning, headlines, fake news etc., convinces an ever growing number of people to vote precisely the opposite of what is in their own best interests.

In a couple of case studies they show how a woman was pleased that her young son was saved by Affordable Health Care (Obamacare), which she said she could not have otherwise afforded, and yet when asked, she said she would still be voting for Trump despite his intention to close it down. In another case, a woman whose life was saved from a blood clotting disorder because of Affordable Health, when she tried to convince her family to oppose Trump, she was ostracised and a brother refused to allow his daughters to talk to her.

There are several other studies which indicate how these voters remain loyal to their party, especially the Republicans, regardless of the positive impact that the other party’s policies may have for them personally. Among registered Republicans, this type of response has increased from 50% to 80%. These studies raise huge issues for progressives concerned to build a more equal, democratic, and better society. Hartcher’s article is a good follow up by seeing the lasting impact of the Right’s strategies which Nancy MacLean so well describes.

This book should be read right across the broad Left. It demonstrates the extremely powerful, and wealthy enemy we are up against. It raises serious questions as to whether they can ever be defeated, and leads to some despair. A US professor colleague told me recently that he just cannot get the book out of his head, it has made such an impact.

Above all, the book demonstrates how ideas are the engine of change, and the urgent need for practical, but long term objectives, strategies and tactics. Our progressive think tanks are severely limited in funds and personnel, and should seriously consider meeting regularly to try and rationalise their work so that they can go beyond just contracted short term research, to more blue sky, long term strategic ideas. Without doubt the success of the Koch and other think tanks is that they have such huge funding backup, which progressive think tanks will never be able to match, and that they can spend time on the big picture. Look at how it is paying off.

For myself the book reinforces the urgency of responding with a pro-active, not simply an oppositionist agenda. Serious consideration must be given to a coming together of all progressives from every field of campaigning, sometime within the next eighteen months. Especially given the possibility of a longer term ALP government, something like the Canadian experience which drew up a plan for an alternative better society titled The Leap, to arrive at a united position around many issues, and a rationalisation of effort so we can begin to get ideas out there which start to set the agenda, and not be only oppositionist.

Nancy MacLean’s excellent history, as well as creating some despair, is also a great starting point to inspire action.

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  • Jeff McCracken-Hewson
    commented 2017-12-04 11:49:55 +1100
    Here is another one for the reading list: Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton Studies in Political Behavior). I think we are currently witnessing the breakdown of the two great myths that underpin the ideology of unfettered capitalism. One is the proposition that parliamentary democracy = rule of the people, by the people, for the people – and that no better system of government is possible. The other is classical economics and the theory of the “free” market – and again, the proposition that “there is no alternative”. For an excellent demolition of classical, and neoclassical, economics as a system of ideas with any logical or empirical validity, I recommend Steve King’s: Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor Dethroned? However, people are finding it much easier to debunk these great myths of politics and economics, than to develop analysis and consensus about how to go beyond them. That is what we need to be doing.
  • Jeff McCracken-Hewson
    commented 2017-12-01 15:22:08 +1100
    “It demonstrates the extremely powerful, and wealthy enemy we are up against. It raises serious questions as to whether they can ever be defeated, and leads to some despair. Above all, the book demonstrates how ideas are the engine of change.” Well said. But none of this will come as any surprise to people on the left, nor should it be a cause of despair.

    Keynes famously said: ““The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else”. Lenin was passionate about the power of ideas. He urged people never to forget the importance of “theoretical work” and never to neglect it.

    And Marx was very clear that parliamentary democracies were the ideal vehicles for the rule of the capitalist class. They exercise this rule through the power of money: buying elections, buying politicians and buying people’s thoughts and opinions through their ownership and control of the media. It is excellent to find a book which has documented all this in the case of America. I’m sure that the same could be done for all parliamentary democracies.

    This is a cause of despair only if you believe that no better alternative to parliamentary democracy is possible. I don’t think that is true and I think this is beginning to dawn on people. There is huge disillusion with democratic politics throughout the western world. At the same time people look at China, a supposedly “authoritarian” state, and they look at America, supposedly the exemplar of “democracy”. They wonder why the former has a leader of real stature, has a booming economy and does not foment war all round the world. They wonder why the latter is the opposite. I think people will start to look at how socialist democracy works in China and at how Soviet democracy worked, for a time, in Russia, and start to wonder if there are any lessons for us. I think there are.

    So one of the great issues for the left now is to be prepared to move towards a system that really enables the vast majority of the people to “rule” rather than, as Marx put it, to choose every few years who will misrepresent them in parliament. (I don’t mean there are no honest and principled MPs – but in the end the system wears them down.) We cannot know what that new form will be, but we need to be ready to assist at its birth. I don’t think this means “over throwing” parliamentary democracy – I don’t think anyone wants that or feels it is possible. I suspect we will see the evolution of structures which ensure that parliamentary democracy genuinely works for the good of the vast majority and which therefore have power over it. I imagine something like a constitutional monarchy where the monarch is still nominally sovereign but in reality is subject to more powerful and legitimate democratic institutions.

    Nothing will happen on this front until there is a truly widespread belief that the current system of political economy is failing irretrievable and a mass movement develops which demands policies and politics that truly reflect the needs of the vast majority. The Bernie Sanders movement in the USA and the Jeremy Corbyn movement in Britain look like they might be the start of that. Australia seems much less polarised at the moment, but the same issues exist here as well.

    I think the truth of some of these classic Marxist-Leninist analyses, often dismissed as the cliches of left wing dinosaurs, is gradually going to dawn on people.