Monday, 30 January 2012


Thomas Frank is best-known for What's The Matter With Kansas? (retitled in the UK to replace Kansas with 'America') in which he examined the propensity of middle-America to vote against its own best economic interests while supporting politicians firmly committed against those interests. The same theme is writ large in Pity The Billionaire, in which Frank details the way, facing a financial system blown to bits by free market greed and deregulation, the very policies which American voters deluded themselves to believe would help them, America's right has embraced a self-contradictory double-think that blames the collapse on the government and regulation, on social programmes and a few bad apples, and turns the problem on its head.

In case you think this argument far-fetched, go to you-tube and watch the 30 minute attack documentary about Mitt Romney produced by a PAC completely uncoordinated with the Newt Gingrich campaign. Romney ran a company devoted to asset-stripping businesses, putting thousands out of work and reaping huge profits along the way. But although the doc itself plays like something made by the Socialist Workers Party, its conclusions are that, somehow, government regulators and a few greedy men (like Romney) were to blame for the economic collapse, and that, left to their own devices, the banks and corporations would have avoided crisis, kept everyone in work, and made America great again for Ayn Rand. Or something like that.

It's enough to drive me back to my college reading of Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. As Frank points out, a weird sort of 'reverse Marxism' prevails in America, where the wealthy have become that way because the public is behind their entrepreneurial zeal—wealth is less a sign of God's blessing than that of your fellow God-fearing Republicans. He also notes the increasingly apocalyptic strain of the right wing's politics; that America, as we know it, will simply cease to exist. As Newt himself has said, 'the threat of Obama is as great as ever posed by Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia.'

I read a snide review of this book in the New York Times, which mainly criticised it for being 'out of date. Finding clownish examples of, say, Glenn Beck, was, according to the Times, just sooooo last year. The Gray Lady never addressed any of the substantial points the book makes, which become more and more relevant as the Republican presidential primaries reveal the pandering to a Tea Party platform which, as discussed above, makes about as much logical sense as arguing the world is only 6,000 years old. But then political discourse in America is all about style over substance--which is why the liberal hologram that was Obama swept to victory in 2008, and why most of the Republican pack currently baying after him are unlikely to worry his campaign strategists.

The sad fact is,however, most of the book will not come as news to those who are drawn to read it. Which makes the most interesting parts the analysis Frank gives of Franklin Roosevelt's battle against the Great Depression, and his detailing of where the Obama administration has Hoovered the crisis, rather than moved to escape it. In that sense, the absurdity of America's far-right has been doubly-counterproductive. Not only to those who embrace it, but as a way of deflecting the centrist liberals from actually dealing with economic realities and economic problems. Why take on an obdurate, more aggressive, and more efficient Congress; a rightist mainstream media whose agenda is set by an Australian billionaire's whims, and that large chunk of disillusioned America, when you can sit back on laugh at Newt, Mitt, Santorum, Cain, Palin et al? Why worry when Jon Stewart's on once a day?

Frank never adopts that position, though he's sorely tempted. Which is why it's important to consider the ways in which we are being let down, the ways in which we've handed over governance completely banks and corporations, even handing them the right to free speech as if they were individuals. That the victims of all this are being turned into its cheerleaders is a deep irony which Americans don't seem willing to see. I might argue it's the inevitable consequence of choosing the fantasy world of Reagan for the reality of the world offered by Jimmy Carter and his successors, and that American discourse simply moved to the right in the same way Mrs. Thatcher did in this country. In that sense, Obama, and Clinton before him, are far closer to free-market Reaganauts than to the socialist terrorists the Right would have them be. But then, if you believe in fantasy, you need a bogey man to blame when reality hits you in the face as it's been standing in front of you threatening to do.  Brits like to think Americans possess no sense of irony, though they themselves seem to lack it when considering Messrs. Cameron and Clegg. But believe me, Thomas Frank possesses irony in spades, if not shovels. It doesn't short-change his book, and it's a shame the book can't be air-dropped across the midwest.

Harvill Secker £14.99 ISBN 9781846556029

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