It’s Official: Reason Has Become a Self-Parody

In a July 10 article at Reason, David Harsanyi (“Bernie Sanders is the Future of the Democratic Party“) describes the rise of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as “a completely predictable outcome of the Democratic Party’s trajectory,” and a portent of the party’s “socialistic future.” I’m more worried about what Harsanyi portends for the future of Reason. Certainly their “trajectory” in recent months has been towards more and more know-nothing defenses of big business using boilerplate language about how the “free market” works — as if this were a free market and not a corporate-state oligarchy. The only thing lacking to make this a column is that copy-and-paste quote about democracies collapsing when “voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury” — whereupon “the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy.”

Harsanyi frames American politics as “a debate that pits the theories of 18th-century liberalism — the kind that brought us the Constitution and limited government — against ideas first embraced in 19th-century Marxism.” When I see a grownup claim to believe something like that, I can’t help but wonder if he thinks pro wrestling is real.

The primary constituency of the Democratic Party throughout the twentieth century and right up to the present — including its “socialistic” New Deal heyday — has always been one wing of the corporate capitalist ruling class.

The “Progressive” movement at the turn of the 20th century was the ideology, not of the blue collar working class, but of the managerial and professional classes who ran the newly arisen giant corporations, government agencies, universities, charitable foundations and school administrations. Far from being motivated by Marxist ideas of class conflict, they saw society at large as a process to be managed like an industrial engineer would design the production process in a factory. For them, managerial expertise would transcend class conflict, labor militancy and other forms of “irrationality.” In other words, their ideology was closer to Herbert Hoover than to Karl Marx. As for the Progressive regulatory agenda, according to Marxist historian Gabriel Kolko it served mainly the interests of the regulated industries themselves.

Much the same is true of the New Deal itself. As Thomas Ferguson argued in Golden Rule, the main financial backing for the New Deal Democratic Party was the most capital-intensive, export-oriented segment of American industry. Because of its capital-intensiveness, labor costs were a modest part of the total cost package; but long planning horizons meant management needed stability and predictability on the shop floor. Hence the leadership of these industries was prepared to offer significant wage increases, seniority-based promotion and a grievance process in return for buying the cooperation of the establishment union leadership in enforcing contracts against its own rank-and-file and suppressing wildcat strikes and other forms of direct action. FDR’s “progressive” labor legislation fully reflected this. It’s no coincidence that a major influence on New Deal industrial policy, General Electric CEO Gerard Swope, pioneered a labor policy (under the name “American policy”) in his own company that prefigured the Wagner Act in many ways.

The same industrial interests promoted what later became neoliberalism (packaged today under the label “free trade”) — the use of the American imperial state to open up foreign markets by force and secure American corporate domination over foreign resources.

The economic centerpiece of the New Deal, the ill-fated National Industrial  Recovery Act, actually set up industrial cartels managed by the major corporate players themselves, who were officially empowered to restrict output and set monopoly prices.

It’s quite true that the Democratic Party has promoted high levels of state intervention in the economy — as has the GOP. But it all amounts to the capitalists working through their capitalist state to manage their capitalist economy in their own interests. If the United States moves towards some form of social democracy, it won’t be because the Democratic Party is motivated by “socialist” ideology or egalitarianism. It’ll be because it serves the interests of the dominant capitalists.

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