Whatever happened to conservatives?

Neoliberalism’s Dark Path to Fascism
It’s hard to believe these days, but in many nations, conservative political parties were once actually the defenders of the nation’s interests, of the greater good, of the public, and of the state. They weren’t always the corporate shills, protectors of billionaires, privatizing libertarians, lobbyist puppets, Talibangelist lapdogs*, and racists they all seem to be today. No, once upon a time they actually cared about their country and its people, not just themselves and the firms that own them.

Look at the Republicans in the USA. It the Republican party under Lincoln that fought racists and went to war for equality in the 1860s. It was the Republicans under Eisenhower who created NASA, expanded Social Security, passed the Civil Rights Act, and enforced integration. It was the Republicans under that arch-villain/Republican Richard Nixon who brought the Environmental Protection Agency into existence. And early Republicans added important amendments to the US Constitution.

But then came President Ronald Reagan (1981-89), whose twisted vision of the USA and its government was radically different from anything before (at least within the mainstream of US politics). This wasn’t a new vision: he had voiced it as early as 1964 in his speech “A Time For Choosing” when he said,

“…the full power of centralized government” this was the very thing the Founding Fathers sought to minimize. They knew that governments don’t control things. A government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they know when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. They also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy.

Reagan despised government, despised public service and public assets. He was determined to hand America over to private corporations, to the capitalist elite, and reduce government to the role of rubber stamping or denuding laws to met corporate needs. He would vilify government again and again in his career and laud private enterprise as better, more efficient.

Reagan believed in an economic fantasy spawned by an arch-conservative economist named Art Laffer called “trickle-down economics” (sometimes disguised in the innocuous-sounding “supply-side economics” – see Jonathan Chait’s book, The Big Con).

Reagan assured the voters that tax cuts to the rich and to corporations would be used to fuel the economy and create jobs rather than what they actually did: line the pockets of the CEOs and shareholders, while making the rich richer. Nor did it matter to Reagan that many of these corporations moved their HQs overseas to avoid paying American taxes or having to obey American labour laws, and then moved their jobs overseas to take advantage of cheap foreign labour, all for the sake of profit.

In 40 years since Laffer’s wild ideas became public policy, in those states they have created deficits, massive economic inequality, and financial disasters. As Morris Pearl wrote in The Guardian:

Each and every time state or federal governments have tested Laffer’s trickle-down theory, deficits balloon, rich folks hoard their wealth at the top, and average Americans suffer.

Not that neoliberals care if anyone “average” suffers from their policies. They only care about how these policies benefit the rich. In 2019, Donald Trump risibly awarded Laffer the “medal of freedom” — further debasing the medal’s credibility in his tiny hands — as he and the GOP continue the long-debunked fantasy of “trickle-down economics” by cutting taxes to the rich and corporations again and again, at rising cost to the masses of American people. The economic inequality in the USA is at an all-time high as a direct result of neoliberal policies.

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Stalin’s ghostly influence today

I recently finished reading the second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s magisterial biography of Josef Stalin: About 1,700 pages so far, with another 400 or so in small-type notes. Brilliant stuff, but a lot to absorb and consider. A bit of a slog if you’re not at least somewhat familiar with the history – there are many events, places and people to keep track of.

Volume one ran from Stalin’s birth to 1928, the year of the first Soviet show trials and when Stalin had fully established himself as undisputed leader. The second volume in the trilogy picks up there with the “wreckers” trial, runs through the decade of show trials, the purges, the decimation of the army leadership, the solidification of the police state, and ends on the day after the Germans invaded: June 22, 1941.

There is still more than a decade of material to cover, through the Great Patriotic War, the post-war reconstruction and the beginning of the Cold War, until Stalin’s death in 1953. I eagerly await the final volume in the trilogy. (NB: if you haven’t seen it, I recommend you watch the movie, The Death of Stalin, a dark comedy but very close to the actual historical events. Available on DVD and Netflix).

While I have previously read several biographies of Stalin and related books on Soviet history, none can match Kotkin for the sheer volume of information, the astounding depth and breadth of his narrative. It’s not simply about the man, the collapse of tsarist Russia and the rise of the Soviet Union under Communism: it’s about the world at the time, what was happening, and how other nations responded to the events and the personalities.

Kotkin’s work weaves together many strands of contemporary history and politics, and provides considerable insight into the workings of the Soviet bureaucracy and Stalin’s developing and hardening ideology. It’s brilliant stuff, and I eagerly look forward to his third and concluding volume.

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