Democracy In Chains : A review of Nancy MacLean’s book subtitled ‘The deep history of the radical right’s stealth plan for America’

Other reviewers have called this book ‘unsettling’. I’d go along with that. For those of us who tend to favour the cock-up interpretation of history over conspiracy theories , its a discomforting wake-up call.

MacLean’s theme can be stated quite briefly. The democratic process is dangerous for elites because of the ‘tyranny of the majority’. By voting out politicians who disagree with popular sentiment, the democratic process can work against the rich and powerful if left to itself. Democracy must therefore be managed and manipulated, and this should not be done in a haphazard way but via a strategically planned long game. And with stealth, in recognition of the accepted unpopularity of the underlying agenda should it be explicitly revealed. Simple majority voting has tended to result in overinvestment in the public sector constraining the indivuals right to self-determination and self-sufficiency; and this must not be allowed.

MacLean tracks forensically the development over time of this long game, from the slave owners in the southern states, through Hayek, von Mises and the Mont Pelerin Society to Reagan and Thatcher, the Pinochet years and the maturing of public choice economics; a journey guided by the thought leadership of James Buchanan and finally making ‘progress’ largely due to the enormous financial investment of Charles Koch.

The book is not an easy read but it is compelling. The last 80 pages are notes and bibliographies and the text is densely referenced. It is academic in its nature but determinedly so – as if MacLean knew that the neoliberals would come after her (as indeed they have) when it was published, attempting to undermine her thesis and destroy her reputation; and that providing links to all the background material and quotes was a vital defence against such future attempts to trash her work.

A number of sub-strategies reoccur throughout the book and are worth summarising, because each on its own may seem to an extent innocuous and/ or reasonable and the casual observer may not recognise them as part of a more sinister whole:

– the devaluation of the public service ethos. The public must be reminded that politicians, like everyone else, are in it for themselves. The more cynical the public are about politicians, the more likely they are to object to public sector activity and budgets directed by politicians. In contrast the ‘free market’ is a pure, value-free arbiter of value and the profit motive ‘pure’. (Ironically the capture of politicians via campaign funding works both to condition their support in the relevant legislatures and to feed the cynical narrative when exposed – a win-win).

– the fragmentation of non-elite society. A classic divide and conquer strategy with multiple facets, notably the makers versus takers narrative emphasising what has come to be called the ‘dependency culture’; but also including many other sub-strategies for setting people against each other so they are too preoccupied with internecine conflict to form any effective opposition to libertarian progress.

– disempowering universal franchise. Although reverting to a franchise of property/ slave owners is seen as ambitious, there are many ways that voting power can be neutralised – from narrowing the party policy options space to encouraging the view that one vote makes no difference to voter re-registration schemes.

– the move to privatize education. Rooted in the fundamental expressed ‘rights’ of southerners to segregate schools, and informed by the idea that we are over-educating the non-elites to the level where they are becoming a nuisance. Part of the freedom to associate with whomever you want.

– the avalanche of thinktanks, separate but interconnected, and persistently available to mainstream media, supported by the Koch brothers and with an aim of conditioning and narrowing mainstream discourse (e.g. Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Partners, etc etc). MacLean might also have noted their increased use in drafting legislation.

Perhaps the most disquieting chapter of the book deals with the Pinochet years in Chile: ‘A Constitution with Locks and Bolts’. The disquiet comes not so much from the comparatively well known litany of ‘mass killings, widespread torture and systematic intimidation’ and the rolling back of ‘Chilean New Deal’ reforms that predated Allende, but because of the regime’s successful attempt ‘to rewrite the nation’s constitution to forever insulate the interests of the propertied class.. from the reach of a … democratic majority’.

Friedman and Hayek can be blamed for their role in justifying the ‘shock treatment’ and shared the regime’s distaste for ‘unlimited democracy’. But as MacLean points out their proposed economic measures were reversible. The structural transformations imposed and then locked into place have proved more resistant to reform. Almost 30 years after Pinochet’s removal the junta’s economic model remains largely in place – a cautionary case study for observers of current developments in northern hemisphere democracies.

Somewhat disappointingly MacLean does not much discuss measures that can be taken to counter this toxic direction of travel. Perhaps that isn’t the job of the political historian. She does note a few encouragements – like the accelerating inequality that is causing libertarian fellow travellers like the IMF to begin to question austerity policies; but she remains pessimistic, especially from a U.S perspective. She notes particularly the paralysing effect of the checks and balances designed into the U.S. constitution, and the ‘privatizing of the legal system’ with bought and paid for judges. She offers no possibility of incremental change, and reading between the lines seems to anticipate catharsis through catastrophe.

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