His review of Thomas Frank's What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Metropolitan Books 2004)
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy
The enigmatic spectacle of a large-scale collective suicide is always fascinating – recall hundreds of Jim Jones’s cult followers who obediently took poison in their Guyana camp. At the level of economic life, the same thing is going on today in Kansas - and this is the topic of Thomas Frank’s new outstanding book.
His simple style should not blind us for his razor-sharp political analysis. Focusing on Kansas, the bedrock of populist conservative uprising, Frank aptly describes the basic paradox of its ideological edifice: the gap, the lack of any cognitive link, between economic interests and “moral” questions. If there ever was a book that needs to be read by anyone interested in the strange twists of today’s conservative politics, it is What’s the Matter with Kansas?.
What happens when the economic class opposition (poor farmers, blue-collar workers versus lawyers, bankers, large companies) is transposed/coded into the opposition of honest hard-working Christian true Americans versus the decadent liberals who drink latte and drive foreign cars, advocate abortion and homosexuality, mock patriotic sacrifice and “provincial” simple way of life? The enemy is perceived as the “liberal” who, through federal state interventions (from school-busing to ordering the Darwinian evolution and perverse sexual practices to be taught), wants to undermine the authentic American way of life. The main economic interest is therefore to get rid of the strong state which taxes the hard-working population in order to finance its regulatory interventions – the minimal economic program is thus “less taxes, less regulations”… From the standard perspective of enlightened rational pursuit of self-interests, the inconsistency of this ideological stance is obvious: the populist conservatives are literally voting themselves into economic ruin. Less taxation and deregulation means more freedom for the big companies that are driving the impoverished farmers out of business; less state intervention means less federal help to small farmers; etc. In the eyes of the US evangelical populists, the state stands for an alien power and, together with UN, is an agent of the Antichrist: it takes away the liberty of the Christian believer, relieving him of the moral responsibility of stewardship, and thus undermines the individualistic morality that makes each of us the architect of our own salvation – how to combine this with the unheard-of explosion the state apparatuses under Bush? No wonder large corporations are delighted to accept such evangelical attacks on the state, when the state tries to regulate media mergers, to put strictures on energy companies, to strengthen air pollution regulations, to protect wildlife and limit logging in the national parks, etc. It is the ultimate irony of history that radical individualism serves as the ideological justification of the unconstrained power of what the large majority of individuals experience as a vast anonymous power which, without any democratic public control, regulates their lives.
As to the ideological aspect of their struggle, Frank states the obvious which, nonetheless, needs to be stated: the populists are fighting a war that cannot be won. If Republicans were effectively to ban abortion, if they were to prohibit the teaching of evolution, if they were to impose federal regulation on Hollywood and mass culture, this would mean not only their immediate ideological defeat, but also a large-scale economic depression in the US. The outcome is thus a debilitating symbiosis: although the ruling class disagrees with the populist moral agenda, it tolerates their “moral war” as a means to keep the lower classes in check, i.e., to enable them to articulate their fury without disturbing their economic interests. What this means is that CULTURE WAR IS CLASS WAR in a displaced mode – so much for those who claim that we live in a post-class society…
Read the Rest of the Essay
More about Thomas Frank:
Architecture of a New Consensus
More about Slavoj Zizek:
The Spectre of Ideology
Passion: Regular or Decaf?