Thomas Frank Almost Gets It

On Tuesday’s Rachel Maddow show, Maddow asked author Thomas Frank about the prospects presented by the defection of some allegedly libertarianish Tea Partiers on the renewal of USA PATRIOT.  Isn’t there a split between the libertarian and authoritarian strands of the conservative movement?, she asked.  Well, yeah, Frank said.  There’s some underlying tension between the socially conservative wing and the pro-business wing (“or as they prefer to be called, ‘pro-market'”).

In hinting at the pro-business vs. pro-market distinction, of course, Frank scored at least an oblique hit on an important point:  The so-called “libertarian” wing of the conservative movement, for the most part, is more pro-business than pro-market.  As he suggested himself, if you examine their agenda closely, despite all the rhetoric it’s not really about whether government is big or small.  It doesn’t matter so much what size government is as who it helps out.  What they mean by “pro-market” is a big government that helps out business interests.

But Frank himself ignores this same distinction in all three of his books.  In each of them — One Market Under God, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, and The Wrecking Crew — Frank equates the corporate economy untold dozens of times to “the free market” or “laissez-faire,” and denounces corporate mercantilists like the folks at Heritage, AEI and FreedomWorks as “free market fundamentalists.”

Naomi Klein makes the same mistake in The Shock Doctrine.  She repeatedly and explicitly distinguishes between the free market and corporatism, and recognizes that what neoliberal politicians really promote is the latter.  But every time, like Frank, she slips back into throwing around language like “free market” and “free market fundamentalism.”

Now, what’s promoted by the people Frank and Klein criticize either really is the “free market,” or it isn’t.  And if they’re willing to recognize that it clearly isn’t in some places, why do they keep slipping back into the same lazy “free market” usage elsewhere?

The answer, I think, is not intellectual dishonesty so much as what’s called a “paradigm,” and the inertia that old habits of thought carry with them (especially when they serve to legitimize the interests of the powerful).

One particularly important paradigm over the last century or so has been “conflationism,” a term coined by Professor Roderick Long of Auburn University.   It’s the implicit equation of the corporate economy we live under with the “free market.”  Right-conflationism is the defense of the actually existing corporate economy as if it were a free market.  We see that tendency on the part of people like Dick Armey and the AEI who defend corporate globalization and drug company profits as “our free market system.”  Left-conflationism, on the other hand — the criticism of corporate power and plutocracy as if they were a free market — is the failing of people like Frank and Klein.

The conflationist paradigm is running out of steam, though.  A growing segment of left-wing free market libertarians (including most of the stable of writers here at C4SS) recognize that corporate power depends for its continued survival on massive and ongoing state intervention in the economy.  And genuine market competition — without government subsidies, government-enforced artificial property rights, enclosures, entry barriers, artificial scarcities and regulatory cartels — would be dynamite at the foundations of corporate power.  Business would be much smaller on average, much production would be relocalized, and wealth would be far less concentrated, if the corporate hogs weren’t able to belly up to the government trough.  The Fortune 500 are like so many turtles on fenceposts, with their ideological stooges at FreedomWorks and the AEI busily praising them for their climbing ability.

A growing number of liberals, likewise — like, for example, economist Dean Baker — are rejecting left-conflationism and pointing out the hypocrisy of the corporatists’ “free market” rhetoric.  It’s ridiculous, Baker frequently argues, to call something a “Free Trade Agreement” when its most important function is to strengthen patent and copyright protections.  So-called “intellectual property” serves the same protectionist function for transnational corporations that tariffs served for the old national industrial corporations of a century ago.  The global corporate order enforced by the Uruguay Round’s TRIPS Accord is about as “free market” and “libertarian” as the Smoot-Hawley tariff.

Big government and big business, for the past 150 years, have engaged in an elaborate kabuki dance in which each presents itself as victim and enemy of — and protector against — the other.  But their enmity is about as genuine as that of the “good cop” and “bad cop” in a police interrogation room.

And more and more people are seeing through this ideological filter manufactured by both the “public” and “private” components of the corporate state.  As Stephen Biko said, the strongest weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.  And we’re starting to take that weapon back.

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