Book Review from the April 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
Pity the Billionaire. By Thomas Frank. Harvill Secker. £14.99.
If you have been paying attention to the Republican primaries, you have probably been shocked by the low level of political debate in the US. Personal attacks, vacuous appeals to religion and the use of ‘liberal’ as a swearword seem to be the common ground in speeches and debates. In the book under review, Thomas Frank looks at the politics and tactics of the ‘newest Right’, as he calls them.
The banking crisis and recession have led, not to calls for more government control of the economy, but for less regulation and the introduction of a genuine ‘free market’. Despite the Reagan and Bush regimes, it is claimed by many that ‘true conservatives’ have never really been in charge and the market has never had a proper chance to impose its discipline on the economy, as there has always been some state interference.
The Tea Party movement is the most obvious manifestation of these ideas. Interestingly, Frank argues that the Tea Party is essentially based on small-business owners who see government regulation as a matter of time-wasting interference in their activities, in contrast to the checks and balances that were (to some small degree) imposed on the big banks. The smaller capitalists tended to borrow money against their homes, so the collapse of house prices left them far less able to borrow and made them look on with envy at the bank bail-outs.
Along with this is an ideology of individual responsibility, the view that those who make it succeed by their own efforts and those who fail and suffer deserve to do so. Where once communities might have rallied round to help someone whose home was being repossessed, now many people are pleased to see a person losing a home that they should never have tried to buy in the first place.
Frank shows how the Democrats have made no serious attempt to respond to these illusions. And he makes a valid point that the real role of the state is far from what the conservatives imagine: ‘neither federal nor state governments have ever mounted a campaign to intern the free-market faithful or blacklist the hardworking proletarians in the Chicago futures pits. However, they have used force over the years to break up strikes, imprison labor organizers, keep minorities from voting, round up people of Japanese descent, and disrupt antiwar movements.’