Friday, April 26, 2013

Reagan/Thatcher, or the Perils of Being Reasonable

Some of my readers will be familiar with my fondness for the word “canard.” I’ve been studying the origins of the word and discovered that mother ducks (French: canard) will feign a broken wing to lure predators away from her young. A duck may be peacefully afloat on a lake and suddenly duck out of sight. People who say a lot of impressive things that aren’t necessarily true – according to German idiom -- quacks like a duck. Hence, the English slang “quack.” In English, one connotation of the word “canard” is “to lie convincingly” or to be more exact, “a lie that is exceedingly and cunningly effective.”

Understanding canards is, therefore, essential for the student of politics. In this short essay, I plan to discuss a particular moral and intellectual failing that creates an opening for endless canards to acquire the appearance of credibility. This failure is belief in the virtues of being reasonable. On this point, I find myself agreeing with Barry Goldwater’s assertion, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” 

Political moderates and centrists are especially keen on extolling their own reasonableness. Those who study logic know that the argument to moderation, aka argumentum ad temperantiam, or the middle ground fallacy, posits that the truth or the ideal position exists as a compromise between two opposite positions.
Thatcher and Reagan. Meant to be Together.

In fact, there is something morally unsound about being moderate. King Solomon exposed the false plaintiff by offering to cut a baby in half. The moderate is the enemy of the idealist. And it is evidence of the success of the moderate worldview that the very word “idealist” is used derisively. “Idealism” is now synonymous with “impracticality,” “utopianism” or “sentimentality.” 

The negative connotations that are ascribed to idealism are not balanced by equally negative connotations of the word “moderate.” I will propose that the supposedly sensible moderate politician is all-too-often an advocate of realpolitik: that is, a value-free political philosophy that is grounded in the desire for material acquisition and the expansion of power. It brings to mind one of the meretricious charms of Ayn Rand libertarianism, the opportunity to exclaim, “I see things as they really are,” or “I will never again be hoodwinked by lofty ideals,” “I can’t rely on other people for help,” or even, “I am morally justified in caring only about my own narrow self-interest.”    

In A Farewell To Arms, Hemingway wrote, “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage ... were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, and the names of rivers.” He described the experience of disillusionment, brought on by witnessing the senseless slaughter that occurred during the First World War. This nihilistic stance conveys a new kind of rugged masculinity, which Hemingway felt compelled to invent after the old masculinity – which subsisted on fighting for honor and glory – expired on the battlefield. All this is to say that the hard-nosed realist is just as sentimental, in his or her own way, as the idealist. And realism is the brave face worn by someone who is morally defeated.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, as he rose to national prominence, Ronald Reagan exuded masculinity. The contrast in demeanor between himself and President Jimmy Carter gave him a powerful advantage. And when Reagan delivered a speech, he was a master at appearing to be reasonable --- as in, he appeared to hold an unembellished, unsentimental and realistic perspective on domestic and foreign affairs. He was not a man to publicly display ambivalence or doubts about his own views. He valued simplicity over complexity and clarity over nuance. 

Jimmy Carter was easily caricatured as a "soft" liberal.

Reagan elevated the "folksy delivery" to an art form. He seemed to offer America an opportunity to escape from the mindset of the 1970s. Instead, he capitalized on the 1970s current of self-absorption and put a happy face on it. 

Reagan’s success as a politician wasn’t due solely to his personality. He was the beneficiary of a lengthy, deliberate campaign to mold popular opinion. Universities, think-tanks, the mass media, and finally political parties were enlisted to define standards for defining a course of action as “reasonable” or “unreasonable,” “efficient” or “wasteful,” “necessary” or “by choice.” The idea of unrestrained personal freedom – a negative freedom based on freedom from constraints, rather than a positive freedom to realize one’s potential as a member of society – was re-invented as a desirable, practicable, and universal aspiration. Regulation, in every sense of the word, is bad. The absence of regulation is categorically a virtue.

All this is discussed at length in David Harvey’s cogent book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Harvey goes on to suggest that diverse manifestations of American values, evidenced during the 1970’s onward, all stem from this long campaign to create a new understanding of what constitutes a “reasonable” or “common sense” view of society. 

According to the new common sense, unrestrained personal freedom is a blessing to all. It is common sense that some people will make more of this freedom than other people, and become wealthy and influential members of society. It is common sense that some people squander their opportunities and possess insufficient drive to succeed in life. We can each see it in ourselves; we’ve made decisions about the trade-off between work and family. We may look back on our lives and decide, “If I’d tried harder, I would have gotten farther.” But this mooning over our own past selves is a part of the problem I am discussing.

The zealous pursuit of personal freedom elides with a state of hyper-individualism. Consumerism, identity politics, multiculturalism, paranoia, and the Balkanizing “culture wars” will flourish. Rock music and peace signs, symbols of protest and incipient revolution in the 1960s, were reduced to the status of consumer goods in the 1970s. 

In the 1970s and 1980s advocates for social justice became divided: some fought for women’s rights, some for Affirmative Action, some for gay rights, and others for social welfare programs; and all of them eventually became so absorbed in their own separate causes to become oblivious to the fact that a new class system was being built around them. Affluent crusaders for women’s rights or racial equality were now free to exercise their humanitarian urges without feeling at all embarrassed about their economic privilege, and today, universities charge $60,000 in tuition to teach about inequality. 

When Citibank decided, in 1975, to no longer service New York City’s debt, the city was sent to the brink of bankruptcy. Jobs were lost, crime rose dramatically, and the infrastructure deteriorated. 

Between 1973 and 1976 the city had lost 340,000 jobs….Black and Hispanic teenage unemployment was hovering at 70 and 80%, respectively…There had been seventy-five felonies committed every hour in New York in 1976, making it the worst crime year in the city’s history (source).

Pretty soon, Citibank’s role in this was forgotten, and what people remembered was that New York City government lacked fiscal discipline. Ever since, many Americans continue to associate debt with frightening conditions that existed in the New York of the 1970s, and more than a few Americans have learned to associate crime with racial and ethnic minorities. 

New York in the 1970s

However, relatively few have learned to associate declining social conditions with the decisions made by financiers. Thomas Edsall, a journalist quoted in Harvey’s book, said,

During the 1970s, business refined its ability to act as a class, submerging competitive instincts in favour of joint, cooperative action in the legislative arena. Rather than individual companies seeking only special favours … the dominant theme in the political strategy of business became a shared interest in the defeat of bills such as consumer protection and labour law reform, and in the enactment of favourable tax, regulatory and antitrust legislation. 
It was during the 1970s that a string of Supreme Court decisions give rise to unlimited campaign contributions by corporations and political action committees started to become powerful forces in shaping legislation and picking winners and losers among politicians running for office. Ronald Reagan benefited from the new clout of corporate interests. He repaid the favor by revising the tax code, particularly with respect to investment income – allowing many corporations to escape any tax liability whatever – and reduced the top tax bracket from 78 to 28%.  

Meanwhile, over in England, Margaret Thatcher had to contend with an entrenched Labour Party and a society in which many key industries – such as coal – were nationalized. She promised voters that problems of inflation and the declining purchasing power of wages could be fixed through a campaign of privatization and austerity measures. The average voter probably did not fully appreciate the fact that austerity measures are a means of transferring wealth from the poor to the rich. Nor did voters fully appreciate that, after privatizing the coal industry, English workers would no longer be needed as miners, because less expensive foreign coal would be imported. 

In Thatcher’s England, inflation went down, but unemployment increased. A low interest rate reduces the incentive for private asset holders to lend money. When assets and credit flow into the hands of private financial firms, they are taken out of the manufacturing sector and the public sector. 

During the 1979 “Winter of Discontent,” when even gravediggers went on strike to protest against pay freezes, unemployment stood at 1.1 million, and the Conservatives swept to power on the message that “Labour isn't working.”
However, during the early 1980s, unemployment rose further still - it topped three million in 1982. The January 1982 figure of 3,070,621 represented 12.5% of the working population, and in some parts of the country it was even higher: in Northern Ireland, unemployment stood at 20%, while in some areas dominated by declining industries such as coal mining, it was much higher still (source).
The people who were most powerfully impacted by unemployment were members of racial and ethnic minorities. There were race riots, such as the Brixton Riot of 1981. Likewise, there were race riots in the United States. Nowadays, the people deemed most likely to remain unemployed and become angry about it are housed in prisons.

Police Prepare to Contain the Brixton Riot, 1981

Reagan and Thatcher happened to be in charge when a tipping point had been reached and private monied interests were able to abruptly reshape the political order in their own image. Reagan and Thatcher also share responsibility for forwarding the agenda of the monied interests at the expense of the majority of voters.  When Reagan died, I felt sorrow, not for his passing but for the damage he had done. And when Thatcher died, I was reminded of the era, when my political consciousness awakened, and yes, I decided it was a death worth celebrating.

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