Thursday, July 12, 2007

No Ideas on the Right

I had lunch with my friend Celine at Le Pré Verre yesterday, just down the street from the College de France. We were talking about Royal's defeat by Sarkozy, lamenting Royal's weak Kerry-like performance. She said the socialists are old school, they have no new ideas. I said I thought the problem was almost the opposite: Royal, like Kerry, adopted the center-right's "new" ideas and confused their supporters, forfeiting their core vision in the process.

I also said the Right has no new ideas. They are all straight from the 18th century: free trade, no taxes, invisible hand of the market. And there's a big one from the 19th century: Social Darwinism. Competition is nature's way, and is the only conceivable mechanism of efficiency. Losers deserve to lose. Winners should take all, because it's more efficient.

In fact there is no utility in winner-take-all, or in gross inequality. The Right's main idea is a practical one: to be supported by the people at the top by helping them have even more. That's a very old idea, if you want to call it an idea.

Did anything happen in the 20th century to conservative thinking? There was one innovation, but it's none of the ones we are taught to see. All the stuff about how conservatives are no longer racist because they have discovered colorbindness, or about how "broken window" policing cuts crime, are nothing more than extensions of market ideology further into the social realm. Colorblindness means "free competition" as measured by standardized test scores, with bias and socio-effects ignored with the bland arrogance for which the Right is so beloved. "Broken window" policing is actually similar to ideas found among socialists about the value of caring for society and public life - of nurturing people's life-in-common, but with the Right's focus on squashing bad actors, meaning that the cure could be seen not as social programs but as forcing people to take "individual responsibility." Nothing new there that actually comes from conservative thinking - just some Darwinism coupled with bare attention to the "life world" that true conservatives going back to Edmund Burke should have had from the start.

The new conservative idea of the 20th century is actually also a throwback, but it was new in the post-World War II period: use mass layoffs all the time, whenever you need too, as a deliberate business strategy. Goodnight and good luck - no tears.

Louis Uchitelle's excellent history of this practice, The Disposable American, shows how laying off hundreds or thousands of long-time, loyal, and highly competent workers had once been seen as a humiliating sign of management failure that unfairly damaged lives and communities, but was rehabilitated as executive genius and later, rewarded with multi-million dollar payouts. Making more money by liquidating workers - not a new idea, but newly acceptable. And newly brilliant. Company facing better, smarter products from other companies - including ones from Korea, Japan, Germany, Singapore, China, etc.? I know, I'll fire everybody. Wow! Good "idea"!

The acceptability of layoffs, which happened while we were sleeping, is the middle-class's Big Sleep. It's the death trip that gives life to all the others.

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