DEMOCRACY IN CHAINS. Nancy MacLean**** Absolutely compelling


NANCY MACLEAN’S BOOK, “Democracy in Chains” is a frightening look at the intellectual and ideological base of what she concludes is a long history by the Right to subvert democracy in the U.S.

The book argues that the recent antagonistic, self destructive politics of Washington – where cross-party compromises have been replaced by an ugly politics of obstruction (government shutdowns, the ideological rejection of anything Obama proposed etc.) and the consistent attacks on swaths of increasingly disenfranchised Americans – is the result of a party (the Republicans) co-opted by an ideological base controlled by the Koch brothers and intent on crippling the government. This, in the pursuit of unrestrained wealth, or “economic liberty” as they regard it. The “free” referred to in the U.S.’ boast that it’s “the Land of the free” to them, refers not to the idea freedom v slavery, but to the freedom to make as much money as possible without government interference [or what in the U.K. is called an “open economy”]. What we’re witnessing now, led by these brothers is, MacLean contends, a stealth take over of the Constitution…a Fifth Column* assault on democracy.

Taxation is nominally at the heart of it all [I am reminded of Trump’s boast that only fools pay taxes].
And ‘it’ – the battle lines – began some time ago, even before the ink on the Constitution was dry. For John Wendell Holmes Jr., taxes were, “the price we pay for civilization”. His opposition was John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina cotton planter, who saw taxation as a form of government-sanctioned theft. “A government based on the naked principle that the majority ought to govern” he wrote, was sure to filch other men’s property.

This line of thinking was codified and formulated into a strategic program by James Buchanan (whose career and thinking much of the book is about). Buchanan was a Nobel laureate, brilliant economist and academic (initially) at various universities, who helped legitimize the libertarian cause: a dream society where there were few rules to constrain how a man might get wealthy, and where there would be “great restraints on the government in asking for some part of that wealth, other than for the maintenance of order and military defense.”

Buchanan could not abide the idea that, through taxation, individuals of wealth had to pay for those public goods and social programs (schools, courses for black students, textbooks, medical care etc.) they had no personal say in approving. Why, he argued, should I have to pay for services that ‘they’ should be paying for themselves? Fellow economist, Milton Freedman, went one step further. “The full burden of education should be borne by the patents of children”, not the state, he argued. “That would promote personal responsibility…through birth control”

Buchanan’s papers and books were the ones that led the chorus which divided the population into the “takers” v the “makers”; between the hardworking people who are forced to pay taxes and the layabouts who spent them; or as the Tea Party ideologues refer to them, the “moocher class”…part of the “parasite economy”. [The present Conservative party in the U.K. – who seems to have swallowed Buchanan’s thinking entirely – divides their electorate similarly: between the “strivers” and the “shirkers”].

Buchanan amplified this ideological perspective in an (quasi) economics theory (he offered no tangible proof for these theories) in his highly lauded book, “The Calculus of Consent”. There he ‘proved’ that majority voting favored politicians who would keep spending (and taxing) in order to ensure reelection. This, he wrote, held down private capital accumulation and therefore the overall economy. And since the problem was systemic, the only brake on such willy-nilly public spending was a curtailment of majority rule.

Democracy as we know it was counterproductive to the accumulation of capital. As John C. Calhoun noted a hundred years before: “Democracy is a threat to economic liberty”.

The problem Buchanan faced was that of execution. How could an academic ensure that his ideas saw the light of day? His initial champions – politicians such as George Wallace and Barry Goldwater (the man who said, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”) – proved useless. They were defeated by voters who actually benefitted from these programs. The same voters who Buchanan felt voted themselves into a living instead of having to earn it.

No matter; this kind of thinking struck a chord with Charles and his brother, David Koch, two entrepreneurial billionaire geniuses** who Buchanan got to know when he taught at Virginia Tech. The Koch’s realized that in order to ensure the absolute, unquestioned supremacy of capital, they would have to put in place the long game and operate outside what they regarded as “the prying eyes of the media.”

To start with, they would need to eliminate the poor (whose electoral clout too often shaped the voting patterns of their Representatives and Congressmen) from the equation. These poor would need to be disenfranchised, a process that’s now as much a reality as during the days of the Jim Crow South. For, as Buchanan concluded, too large an electorate was a problem for the white, property owning class of men like himself, especially in the South where popular voting rights would put “colored heels upon white necks” and create “negro supremacy” (and let’s face it. All American citizens weren’t allowed their full voting rights until 1965. Even today the U.S is still 138th of 172 democracies in terms of voter participation.)

No wonder Obama was such an existential threat. No wonder also “the cadre” (as Koch’s army refers to itself) continues to kindle the irrational conviction that he won through massive voter fraud. Indeed, so avidly has this lie been perpetuated that nearly half of registered voters and even federal judges and Supreme Court justices have come to believe that voter fraud is a big problem.

And it was no surprise that the brothers poured more than $100M into opposing him. They now employ more than three times as many people as the Republican committees have on their payrolls. Their ever expanding network, knitted together to fund this “long game” include the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, the State Policy Network, the Competitive Enterprise, the Tax Foundation, the Reason Foundation, the Leadership Institute and the Charles Koch Foundation.

Their first, and so far, according to MacLean, successful mission was to wrest control of the Republican Party (as evidenced not only by the money each of last year’s Republican presidential hopefuls received from them, but also in the debates, when every contender paid allegiance to the Koch agenda: climate change denial, the sanctity of gun ownership, antipathy toward public education and teachers’ unions – indeed all unions – the need for radical tax changes (i.e. a Flat tax whereby both rich and poor pay the same tax rate…Trump’s present mission) the need to discontinue Medicaid (and later Obamacare) and the need to privatize what they reframe as a looming crisis facing Social Security (salvageable only via private, Wall Street-led investments).

Only then – with a chastened and corralled Republican party – could there be the beginnings of true “liberty”, which is seen as the insulation of private property rights from the government and the takeover of what was long public (such as schools, prisons, state lands etc.) by corporations.

For MacLean, the ideological schism seeded so long ago and actively encouraged by the Koch’s has hardened into two clear world views: collective security (“we the people”) v individual liberty. Collectivism was seen as the key menace to liberty, one that “undermines individual responsibility…and weakens the moral fiber of the people” (Milton Friedman)

The “I” v “we” dichotomy has an even darker twin: the white majority, the forebears who made the country…the ‘real’ Americans v the ‘others’…in Virginia’s J. Addison Hagan’s words, “the minorities such as Farmers, Unions, Negroes and Jews”. Individuality (or the right to discriminate) was seen as a higher good than racial equality.

The problem however remained. The reductions (or, rather, abolishment) they sought in government taxes, social programs, even public owned and enjoyed parks and open spaces, would never be voted in by the majority of people (who actually enjoy these programs). One of Buchanan’s later books, “The Limits of Liberty” made the point abundantly clear: there was simply no way to reconcile individual property rights with universal voting rights.

Democracy was inimical to individual liberty.

What was needed was a program or programs that would accelerate the pace of disenfranchisement and would ‘mainstream’ these ideas. What was needed was more akin to a revolution. Indeed, Koch’s Cato Institute alluded to Cato the Elder, famed for his declaration that, “Carthage must be destroyed”. The Cato Institute’s mission was one of demolition: it sought nothing less than the annihilation of statism in America. And while that radical long game was put in place, another Koch enterprise, the Reason Foundation proceeded along more covert lines.

It’s director Robert Poole Jr. mapped out the strategy clearly.

Revolution by incrementalism.

“You can hack away at government” he said, “by privatizing one function after another, selling each move as justified for its own sake rather than waiting until the majority of the population is convinced of the case…” [This neatly summarizes the ideology of the present U.S. ‘corporatizing’ of public lands…and here in the UK, of the Conservative sell off of anything they can get their hands on, from the Post Office to prisons to NHS properties to policing]

It was in 1973, when these ideas were initially fully put into action…in Chile. 1973 was the year General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. Impressed by his ideas, a devotee of the Virginia school, one José Piñera, later Pinochet’s Minister of Labour (and still later an executive of the Cato Institute) invited Buchanan to advise and guide the new dictatorship in helping to rewrite the Chilean constitution. The rewritten constitution defined, and codified into law, Buchanan’s mandates on how to limit the reach of democracy, the role of privatization, deregulation and the state-induced fragmentation of group power. Chile’s dictatorship became the American libertarians’ play school.
Back home, the Koch’s expanded the role of their think tanks (referred to as the “Kochtopus”) to become “think and do” tanks: their strategic mission evolved as one that would begin to train as vast a cadre of ‘foot soldiers’ as possible via the universities and academics funded by them.

Call them the “message multipliers”.

He also by then decided on a strategy of dissimulation and misinformation. His programs (such as, for example, the removal of Medicaid and Social Security) would be presented to the public as the opposite of what they were; they’d be framed as intending to reform and shore up these services when the intent was to kill them.

Their (familiar) targets (all of which were seen as interfering with business) were clear: government regulations, environmentalists (who had to be defamed not only defeated – mainly by insinuating they were only interested in monetary rewards -, government backed heath and welfare, education (“the most socialized industry in the world”), the graduated income tax and feminists (“heavily socialistic for no apparent reason”)

This approach, exemplified by the likes of Koch-funded Dick Armey, the man who, with Newt Gingrich wrote the infamous “Contract with America” has been so successful that by 1990, 40% of the US federal judiciary had been treated to a Koch-based curriculum. Koch’s “think and do” tanks now exist in all 50 states.

The Koch’s anti-environment funding is also now beginning to pay off big time. Only 8 of 287 Republicans in Congress acknowledge that man-made climate change is real. The number of Americas who believe in man-made climate change has fallen from 71% in 2007 to about 40%. Koch and his paid-for Congress would rather invite global catastrophe than allow regulatory restrictions on economic liberty.

Public health budgets have been systematically cut. The result has been disasters like Flint, Michigan, where the Koch-funded Mackinac Centre (“When the Mackinac Centre speaks, we listen” said Michigan governor John Engler) ensured that their proxies saved money by switching the source of the city water supply to the polluted Flint River. For 18 months, 100,000 residents (mainly Black) were systematically poisoned.

The Koch-funded State Policy Network have also been able to convince a sizable segment of the American population that the problems in schools today are the result of teachers’ unions. The result is a gutting of schools’ budgets [or… Betsy Devoss!]. Where is the money going? To a new education industry of private schools (following the same rule book that has corporatized the prison service)

Following the Pinochet-trialed formula, over the last decade, multiple laws have been put into place up and down the country to hobble Labour unions

Remember their mantra: Collectivism or anything that smacks of collectivist action is bad. Remember also their stealth strategy to force disenfranchisement at all fronts.

MacLean quotes an investigation by the New York Times which examined the increasingly far-reaching power-play by American corporations. The articles point out that included in the fine print of applications for, say, employment, credit cards, cell phone service, medical practices or long term care, is language that prevents the signers from participating in any form of collective action, such as class action lawsuits over corporate malpractice. Consumers have willingly and unknowingly signed away their constitutional rights to sue in court.

As one Reagan-appointed federal judge summarized, “Ominously, business has a good chance of opting out of the legal system altogether and misbehaving without reproach”

It is here, at the point of the law that the rubber hits the road. As one North Carolina insider summarized: “Lose the courts, lose the war”

The Koch’s clearly see control of the courts as the critical key to getting around the intractable problem of voter majorities. As a result, their donor network has pumped hitherto unheard-of sums into state judicial races. The intent was to deny municipal governments the right to make their own policies. In other words, should a democratically elected Congress pass laws inimical to any of Koch’s programs, they’d have the power to bypass those laws locally. GOP –controlled states have been passing what are called “pre-emption laws”. These deny localities the right to adopt policies that depart from an imposed model; as a result, GOP states’ governments are preventing city and state governments from enacting such measures as raising local minimum wages, protecting the environment or enacting antidiscrimination measures that would protect LGBT citizens.

Worse than this, the disenfranchisement program continues to be a wide spreading victory for “the cadre”. By 2012, Republican legislators in fourty-one states introduced more than 180 bills to restrict who could vote and how…mainly affecting low-income voters, young people and Blacks. This is the most aggressive attack on universal franchise in the U.S since the mass disenfranchisement instituted by southern states a century ago.

Two journalists, Jane Mayer and David Daley (hounded by Koch’s investigators intent on finding dirt on them…or what is referred to as “upping the transaction costs on the other side”) further have pointed to a plan called the Redistricting Majority Project or REDMAP. This has been what MacLean describes as a cunning plan aimed at boosting the power of Republicans even where majorities backed Democrats.

Author and magazine editor (of The Salon) David Daley has made the ‘state of the union’ abundantly clear: the GOP is an election away, he wrote, “from achieving an unimaginable goal in a country that sees itself as a beacon of democracy: a veto-proof supermajority operating without majority support” [Indeed Trump is the second president in the last ten years to have been elected with a minority vote]

MacLean’s conclusion is sobering.

The U.S has reached a point, she contends, where it is being run by an oligarchy in all but the outer husk of representative form. Its leaders, she notes [and which we’ve recently witnessed in Charlottesville] “have no scruples about enlisting white supremacy to achieve capital supremacy….And today, knowing that the majority does not share their goals and would stop them if they understood the endgame, the team of paid operatives seek to win by stealth”

“Is this the country we want to live in? If we delay much longer” she laments, “those who are imposing their stark utopia will choose for us”

* The Fifth Column refers to the covert insiders who align with outside forces to destabilize the status quo
** Charles Koch turned his dad’s $70M oil company into one now that has annual revenues of over $115b and employs over 67,000 people in 60 countries.

 

ATOMIC BLONDE** Sub atomic


I’M SURE THERE’S a collective noun for clichés: “ A lobotomy of clichés”? “A cop-out of clichés”? “A don’t-waste-your-money of clichés”? Who knows. But if you’re looking for said clichés, “Atomic Blonde” is the movie to see. The story line is built around the premise that the uber secret list of MI6 and CIA agents has been stolen (Probably the same list stolen in “Mission Impossible I” and stolen again in “Skyfall”). It’s a period, Cold War, piece set at around the time of the destruction of the Berlin Wall (with sets left over from “Bridge of Spies”). Sexy (very) super agent Lorraine Broughton is sent to West Berlin to make contact with fellow agent David Percival (An eyes-rolling, neck-bulging, head-twitching James McAvoy imitating what a rogue agent might look like) to get back the list. All the typical – and expendable – thuggish types are here. And of course, people meet in strobe flashing, techno-thumping clubs where lithe semi nude women writhe around.

There will be blood.

This is John le Carré by way of a self consciously stylish Vogue fashion shoot, repurposed as a video game.

Just say noir.

That said, there are a few highlights: Director David Leitch’s fight scenes (one executed in what seems like an extended single-frame shot) are tremendous. They’re bloody and brutal and have the rapid action bone crunching grittiness of the best of Bourne. And not surprisingly, Leitch was the stunt coordinator on movies like the “Bourne’s” “Wolverine” etc. It’s as though all the staggering silliness of the plot with its multiple double crosses, is just so much foreplay for the fights. And there are many.

The other highlight is Charlize Theron. Here she channels her “Mad Max” mojo to great effect, dominates the movie and even manages to transcend a mindless script. Had it not been for her, this enterprise could well have been simply laughed off the screen. Theron is a tall woman and an absolutely convincing fighter. There’s no feeling of pretense. She’s also naked a lot. Which I’m sure is not at all gratuitous; simply the director’s desire to involve the audience’s empathy with her poor bruised body. Whatever. She’s definitely a highlight.

But in the end, despite her valiant effort and towering presence, “Atomic Blonde” can’t escape the limitations of its confused story, bad writing (from the eloquent pen who brought us “300”), and the absence of anyone resembling a real person. Maybe it’ll all come together in “Atomic Blonde II”.

But I won’t be there to find out

 

ATOMIC BLONDE. Dir: David Leitch. With: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Eddie Marsan. Written by: Kurt Johnstad (“300 Rise of an Empire”, “300”) adapted from the graphic novels, “The Coldest City”. Production Design: David Scheunemann

 

THE BIG SICK*** Charming


THE BIG SICK is a radical departure from the typical rom-com format. It’s actually smart. It feels honest, is often quite funny and the man isn’t depicted as a man-boy asshole. It’s based on the true story of a struggling Chicago stand up comic (Kimail Nanjiani as himself), whose day time job is driving a taxi, who falls in love with a heckler, Emily, (Zoe Kazan) at one of his shows. There are two complications. Firstly he’s Pakistani from a very traditional family (just a shade away from cliche), intent on arranging his marriage (to a nice Muslim Pakistani girl). And secondly, having whimped out and chosen tradition over love…parents over passion, his (now ex) girlfriend, Emily, succumbs to a life threatening illness resulting in a medically induced coma.

The arc of the story follows Nanjain’s initially forced, and eventually easy intimacy with her fraught and squabbling parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) as she lies in life support in a hospital; and his emergence from a life of hypocritical, dishonest duty – both to his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) and to a dull imitative comedy style – to one of honesty and self assertion (while just about managing to avoid degenerating into a clichéd tale where “honesty is the best policy”)

There’s a vaguely sketched idea about the mutual distrust that exists between people of different cultural backgrounds; both sets of patents are small minded and wary of ‘the other’. But Kimail’s authorial voice is never cynical or patronizing. The result is a gentle, genial (if not laugh out loud) humor.

Kimail, I guess following the Woody Allen example, plays himself in the movie…which certainly gives his character a feeling of idiosyncratic ‘realness’. But he’s (and co-writer Emily Gordon) are better writers than he is an actor. His is bland dead pan style probably works well in stand up, but in this dramatic context, it kills a good many of his really funny lines. Zoe Kazan on the other hand is a bubbly, engaging presence and a great counterpoint to Nanjain’s low keyed style.

It’ll be interesting to see where Nanjain goes next. Because the story is so autobiographical, the danger is that he’ll follow the route of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and churn out “The Bigger Sick”. Or, we can but hope, he’ll segue into a writer who, despite the backing of Judd Apatow, can turn his funny observing eye into something that resembles fresh, intelligent, not (the typical) dumbed down frat house American humor.

 

THE BIG SICK, Dir: Michael Showalter (“Hello, My Name is Doris”). Writers: Emily V Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani. With: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan (“Our Brand is Crisis”, “In Your Eyes”), Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher(“Silver Linings Playbook”. Cinematographer: Brian Burgoyne (manly TV series and sit coms)