The Pretended Populism of Politics

In the United States and around the globe, statism benefits from sharing its conceptual space with populism, broadly defined as an advocacy for the interests of common, working people, for the general improvement of their lot. The interrelation between the two is perhaps attributable to the success of nineteenth and twentieth century state socialists in reshaping the peasantry’s attitudes, in prevailing over the residues of absolute monarchy. That is to say, it is unlikely that, having travailed under the yoke of feudal slave states for centuries, the class of serfs would have been especially receptive to the idea that the state was the answer to their prayers.

Nevertheless, having longed for justice as they bore the weight of the Ancien Régime’s nobles, the entreaties of the socialists would have resonated with the workers, who would not have descried the differences between the statist and stateless sorts. So although it may be that their recent ancestors would have seen through, in the words of Karl Hess, “the anomalous position of using political power to abolish political power,” a new generation of plebeians seized on any chance whatsoever of rooting out the old system.

The legacy of the historical development, then, is that today the surrogates of the state — when they draw new powers into it — enjoy the advantage of full support from blue collars around the world. It is the paradox, displayed anew in every act of political theater, of the toiling masses cheering on their tormentors as they ensure the chicaneries of the very powerful.

The challenge is to bring to light a truth that, though borne out in blatant heaps of evidence, is lamentably counterintuitive to nearly everyone, that governments are the foremost enemies of the working class. Argues Anthony Gregory, “Leftists usually [correctly] understand how wartime provides politically connected corporations with high profits and cushy contracts. What is more often neglected is that the history of the American domestic welfare and regulatory state also corresponds closely to the rise of corporatism. It is no coincidence.”

American champions of labor-centric populism readily assail the instances of business/government scheming that corroborate their ideological predilections, but in the next moment disavow all of their suspicions of power. They give credence to the idea that the same state they charge with the worst kinds of corporate elitism would brandish its might for anyone but the influential. Conservative populists, calling on the language of religion and a counterfeit “live and let live” precept, analogously (and equally hypocritically) dispense with their distrust of the state when their pet issues are implicated.

In his revision of the state-sanctioned account of the Progressive Era, Gabriel Kolko writes, “The dominant fact of American political life at the beginning of [the twentieth] century was that big business led the struggle for the federal regulation of the economy.” Progressive Era political episodes that are now uniformly attributed to an imaginary government war against the powerful were in fact no more than the sordid but successful ventures of the business class to squeeze out competitors and line up future favors.

Kolko points out that the inappropriately named “trust busters” of that period were really fixed on “end[ing] the bane of destructive and unprofitable competition,” in opposition to “[p]opulists” and “trade unionists” who might “threaten the entire fabric of the status quo.” The state, notwithstanding all of its tough talk for the wage earner, was bought and paid for long before the Progressive Era and long before the American state was even born.

Instead of trammeling the greed of gluttonous, Gilded Age robber barons, the progressive reforms of the statists’ “living thing” — Woodrow Wilson’s honorific for the state — were situated to catalyze that greed. We would be naïve indeed to look upon the state as an impartial machine for justice. Where limited government types are deluded by the fantasy that the state can be used to safeguard free markets against power and privilege, state socialists are comparably beguiled by the hopeless chimera of reaching economic equity through the state; both theories would have us apply the one institution defined by violence, injustice, and oppression to thwart the same.

When the state manages the economy, it does so not as a trustee or steward of the people, as if even that rationale were ethical or intelligible, but as the contrivance of reavers who would take from the productive classes without contrition. It is only when we realize that the state is a product without value that we will stop buying the sophistic propaganda of the criminals who sell it.

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The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory