This post is an addendum to my previous post, The Ruling Class. In that post, I alluded to David Brook’s “progressive corporatism” characterization. “Progressive corporatism” means oligarchy + technocratic class. Brooks championed this two years ago in a column piece, The Establishment Lives!. In the piece, he reveled in the supplantation of politics with a new establishment, technocratic center. Brooks forecasted the end of ideology and the dawn of a new progressive era. This new progressive era would “save” capitalism and restore institutional trust and confidence.
At the time, I criticized that column with my blog post, The Paulson Plan as a Libertarian Class Theory Morality Play, at Freedom Democrats. Earlier this year, I once again took issue with a Brooks’ column. I criticized Brooks’ characterization of the Tea Party as a Walmart version of the New Left. Not quite. But Brooks was starting to get worried. The original New Left took a generation to blossom after the institutional consolidation of corporate liberalism. Now, however, the shit is starting to hit the fan even before one election cycle. But the “Tea Party,” although originally having some libertarian roots, is now just a partisan movement. Just like the anti-war movement during the Bush years was. Once the Dems began to regain power, the anti-war movement began to fade. I have been saying that if you had a merger of the Tea Party with the anti-war movement, then you would have something. But now, a legitimate popular resistance/protest movement rooted in a coherent class critique continues to be marred by a partisan, communitarian divide.
Now I note Brooks’ latest column, The Technocracy Boom. Brooks’ line now is that this era of progressive corporatism has been enacted without majority popular support. The explosion of the technocratic class and institutional oligarchy is not engendering a restoration of trust and confidence in political institutions, but rather it is precipitating a marked historical decline in such trust and confidence. Brooks is now characterizing his precious establishment rule as a high-stake sociological gamble:
This progressive era amounts to a high-stakes test. If the country remains safe and the health care and financial reforms work, then we will have witnessed a life-altering event. We’ll have received powerful evidence that central regulations can successfully organize fast-moving information-age societies.
If the reforms fail — if they kick off devastating unintended consequences or saddle the country with a maze of sclerotic regulations — then the popular backlash will be ferocious. Large sectors of the population will feel as if they were subjected to a doomed experiment they did not consent to. They will feel as if their country has been hijacked by a self-serving professional class mostly interested in providing for themselves.
If that backlash gains strength, well, what’s the 21st-century version of the guillotine?
Doses anyone in their right mind think that a central planner “can successfully organize fast-moving information-age societies?” No. And, frankly, that’s where the vast internal domestic security apparatus organized under the Department of Fatherland Security comes in. A vast internal, domestic bureaucratic security apparatus is a property of privileged, exploitative political system. We would laugh at the thought that the Soviet or Nazi Internal Security apparati were erected on the pretext of protecting the “freedoms” of the citizens from external threats(although, of course, that was, indeed, propaganda). We should likewise laugh at our own government propaganda. A Police State protects privilege and a privileged order, period. And, frankly, quite a but of this privilege ends being the privilege of the security apparatus itself.
Brooks’ reference to the “21st-century version of the guillotine” invokes America going “French” on the Ruling Class. Well, I think America is going to go French on the ruling class but not in terms of a return of the guillotine but rather in terms of a return of radical politics rooted in class consciousness. Class theory originates out of a liberal critique of the Permanent Napoleon War Economy that built itself over a long-standing corrupt regulatory/administrative tradition inherited from the Ancien Régime. This is where it comes from, and it is what ultimately underlies the Marxist and Socialist class critique of liberalism as well.
For me, the prospect of a thoroughly corrupt liberal institutionalism engaged in permanent war implies a blowback at some point. It could be argued that America, since it’s founding, has been engaged in permanent war one way or another. And radical politics is a flower that periodically blooms to wreak havoc on the mainstream political dynamic.
This new progressive era has resulted in the greatest concentration of financial wealth in American history and the greatest expansion of a technocratic class since FDR. It has also saddled the political economy with a paralytic regime uncertainty not seen since the “Great Depression.” This new progressive era is a systematic assault on the Tucker four monopolies. If you didn’t think so before, there is certainly no denying now that the Central Bank has been elevated to a fourth branch of government. It is now an even more powerful monopoly that is neither accountable to the market or politics. This is not the stuff of a robust political economy. Indeed, we now have what can be called a compliance economy where every nontrivial market transaction has to be duly documented with the State. This lends itself to famous Proudhon rant: “To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished.”
Although a bit of an oversimplification, but nonetheless a fairly accurate summary, the historical libertarian solution to the class problem of liberal political economy was to get rid of politics whereas the historical socialist solution to the same problem was to get rid of the market. Each of these viewpoints saw liberalism in an evolutionary framework that would be eclipsed by a social system deemed to be more rational. Progessivism, in a sense, can be thought of as the “third way,” a system which retained both politics and the market, holding out that both market and political institutions could be reformed under the direction of elite technocratic institutional classes(note conservatism is mostly outside the scope of this discussion because it does not inherit from the liberal tradition).
Socialism fails for a myriad of reasons, but most notably because humans have a universally evolved trait to trade and exchange. You can’t get rid of this. Any social/political structure that suppresses this trait is not something that any way could be said to be a liberal order. Here, the Hayek critique applies.
Progressivism can’t overcome the libertarian class critique. It relies on myths and state-funded institutional propaganda to mythologize the triumph of the political and technocratic classes. Frankly, it was the Administrative State to begin with that spawned the liberal class critique against liberalism itself. And wasn’t even the libertarians who debunked the original progressive era in America; it was the New Left, the intellectual outgrowth of the Wisconsin revisionist school, led by the likes of Gabriel Kolko, whose deconstructions in such works as “Railroads and Regulation: 1877-1916,” and “The Triumph of Conservatism” documents that the hailed progressive regulatory reforms were merely instances of political and regulatory capture by Big Business. And now, in our second great progressive era, the obvious failures have reduced progressives to blaming politics and de-legitimizing dissenting points of view. In this, I think Kevin Carson is on target with his most recent paper declaring progressives to be the new reactionaries.
This leaves us with libertarianism. Libertarianism, in a real sense, relies on a de-politicized social order. Yet, it is just as utopian to wish away humans as political creatures as it is to wish them away as market creatures. Humans are political creatures. It’s a universally evolved trait as well. And, frankly, it should be acknowledged that no extended order can exist purely as a function of the market. There is some necessary degree of collective action that must underlie any sophisticated social order. But the question is whether politics, as a method of collective action, can resolve coordination problems without privilege or strategic advantage to any given party. Yes it can, but it’s not a given. Politics exists ubiquitously in informal cultural and social institutions as well. The Monkey Cage is a blog that, playing off Tyler Cowen’s “Markets in Everything”, has the tagline, “Politics in Everything.” Well, maybe, so, but I would add, “Right of Exit in Everything.” Libertarianism has an empirical problem with politics, but not a conceptual problem. Politics can be overcome without having to deny the political nature of humans.
When referring to the term, “Free market,” that term should be understood to mean “markets free of political privilege.” When we libertarians are accused of being market fundamentalists, let us plead guilty to holding to the fundamental principle of markets without privilege. These are in short supply supply these days. We are being criticized by the apologists of oligarchy and the cult of personality. They are the reactionaries, the defenders of the Status quo. Markets without privilege is a left-wing institutional paradigm and really the only plausible left-wing remaining as an inheritor of liberalism. The others, they are busy with their communitarian wars with conservatives.
It is not coincidental, as Kevin Carson points out, that capitalism as a dirty word is leading to a rebranding of “Free Enterprise,” which of course implies the entrepreneur operating without political privilege. The capitalist-anti-capitalist divide that has been brewing in radical libertarianism for a number of years now is spilling into the mainstream. Yes, there is class consciousness afoot, and yes there are those who are ready to expropriate it.