What’s Old (and Vile) Is New

Brian Cook

Chris Hayes writes on the resurgence of the (Andrew) Mellon Caucus, noting how some wingers are quoting (with approval!!!) the following statement from the old plutocrat:Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate … It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life.Utterly charming in 1929, and it's only grown more so today. But it sent me back to John Holbo's phenomenal review of David Frum's book Dead Right, in which he delves deep into the heart of darkness lying within the right's economic philosophy. Holbo quotes a passage in which Frum explains that "The great, overwhelming fact of a capitalist economy is risk. Everyone is at constant risk of the loss of his job, or of the destruction of his business by a competitor, or of the crash of his investment portfolio. Risk makes people circumspect. It disciplines them and teaches them self-control. Without a safety net, people won’t try to vault across the big top."Mmm-hmm. As Holbo notes:The thing that makes capitalism good, apparently, is not that it generates wealth more efficiently than other known economic engines. No, the thing that makes capitalism good is that, by forcing people to live precarious lives, it causes them to live in fear of losing everything and therefore to adopt – as fearful people will – a cowed and subservient posture: in a word, they behave ‘conservatively’. Of course, crouching to protect themselves and their loved ones from the eternal lash of risk precisely won’t preserve these workers from risk. But the point isn’t to induce a society-wide conformist crouch by way of making the workers safe and happy. The point is to induce a society-wide conformist crouch. Period. A solid foundation is hereby laid for a desirable social order.Let’s call this position (what would be an evocative name?) ‘dark satanic millian liberalism’: the ethico-political theory that says laissez faire capitalism is good if and only if under capitalism the masses are forced to work in environments that break their will to want to ‘jump across the big top’, i.e. behave in a self-assertive, celebratorily individualist manner.It's long as hell, but you should take the time to read the whole thing.

Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.
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