One man’s mis­sion to rip up democ­racy

James Buchanan’s vi­sion of to­tal­i­tar­ian cap­i­tal­ism has in­fected pol­icy in the US and UK

The Guardian Weekly - - Comment & Debate - Ge­orge Mon­biot

It’s the miss­ing chap­ter: a key to un­der­stand­ing the pol­i­tics of the past half-cen­tury. To read Nancy Ma­cLean’s new book, Democ­racy in Chains: The Deep His­tory of the Rad­i­cal Right’s Stealth Plan for Amer­ica, is to see what was pre­vi­ously in­vis­i­ble. The his­tory pro­fes­sor’s work on the sub­ject be­gan by ac­ci­dent. In 2013 she stum­bled across a de­serted clap­board house on the cam­pus of Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity in Vir­ginia. It was stuffed with the un­sorted ar­chives of a man who had died that year whose name is prob­a­bly un­fa­mil­iar to you: James McGill Buchanan. She says the first thing she picked up was a stack of con­fi­den­tial let­ters con­cern­ing mil­lions of dol­lars trans­ferred to the univer­sity by the bil­lion­aire Charles Koch.

Her dis­cov­er­ies in that house of hor­rors re­veal how Buchanan, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with busi­ness ty­coons and the in­sti­tutes they founded, de­vel­oped a hid­den pro­gramme for sup­press­ing democ­racy on be­half of the very rich. The pro­gramme is now re­shap­ing pol­i­tics, and not just in the US.

Buchanan was strongly in­flu­enced by both the ne­olib­er­al­ism of Friedrich Hayek and Lud­wig von Mises, and the property supremacism of John C Cal­houn, who ar­gued in the 19th cen­tury that free­dom con­sists of the ab­so­lute right to use your property (in­clud­ing your slaves) how­ever you may wish; any in­sti­tu­tion that im­pinges on this right is an agent of op­pres­sion, ex­ploit­ing men of property on be­half of the un­de­serv­ing masses.

Buchanan brought these in­flu­ences to­gether to cre­ate what he called pub­lic choice the­ory. He ar­gued that a so­ci­ety could not be con­sid­ered free un­less every ci­ti­zen has the right to veto its de­ci­sions. Any clash be­tween “free­dom” and democ­racy should be re­solved in favour of free­dom. In his book The Lim­its of Lib­erty, he noted that “despo­tism may be the only or­gan­i­sa­tional al­ter­na­tive to the po­lit­i­cal struc­ture that we ob­serve”. Despo­tism in de­fence of free­dom.

His pre­scrip­tion was a “con­sti­tu­tional revo­lu­tion”: cre­at­ing ir­rev­o­ca­ble re­straints to limit demo­cratic choice. Spon­sored by wealthy foun­da­tions, bil­lion­aires and cor­po­ra­tions, he de­vel­oped a the­o­ret­i­cal ac­count of what this con­sti­tu­tional revo­lu­tion would look like, and a strat­egy for im­ple­ment­ing it.

He ex­plained how at­tempts to de­seg­re­gate school­ing in the Amer­i­can south could be frus­trated by set­ting up a net­work of state-spon­sored pri­vate schools. It was he who first pro­posed pri­vatis­ing uni­ver­si­ties, and im­pos­ing full tu­ition fees on stu­dents: his orig­i­nal pur­pose was to crush stu­dent ac­tivism. He urged pri­vati­sa­tion of so­cial se­cu­rity and many other func­tions of the state.

He sought to break the links be­tween peo­ple and gov­ern­ment, and de­mol­ish trust in pub­lic institutions. He aimed, in short, to save cap­i­tal­ism from democ­racy.

In 1980, he was able to put the pro­gramme into ac­tion. He was in­vited to Chile, where he helped the Pinochet dic­ta­tor­ship write a new con­sti­tu­tion. Amid the tor­ture and killings, he ad­vised the gov­ern­ment to ex­tend pro­grammes of pri­vati­sa­tion, aus­ter­ity, mon­e­tary re­straint, dereg­u­la­tion and the de­struc­tion of trade unions, which trig­gered eco­nomic col­lapse in 1982.

None of this trou­bled the Swedish Academy, which in 1986, through his devo­tee at Stock­holm Univer­sity As­sar Lind­beck, awarded Buchanan the No­bel memo­rial prize for eco­nom­ics. It is one of sev­eral de­ci­sions that have turned this prize toxic.

The pa­pers Ma­cLean dis­cov­ered show that Buchanan saw stealth as cru­cial. He told his col­lab­o­ra­tors that “con­spir­a­to­rial se­crecy is at all times es­sen­tial”. In­stead of re­veal­ing their ul­ti­mate des­ti­na­tion, they would pro­ceed by in­cre­men­tal steps. For ex­am­ple, in seek­ing to de­stroy the so­cial se­cu­rity sys­tem, they would claim to be sav­ing it, ar­gu­ing that it would fail with­out a se­ries of rad­i­cal “re­forms”. Grad­u­ally they would build a “counter-in­tel­li­gentsia”, al­lied to a “vast net­work of po­lit­i­cal power” that would be­come the new estab­lish­ment.

Through the net­work of think­tanks that Koch and other bil­lion­aires have spon­sored, and through their trans­for­ma­tion of the Repub­li­can party, Buchanan’s vi­sion is ma­tur­ing in the US. But not just there. Read­ing this book felt like a demist­ing of the win­dow through which I see Bri­tish pol­i­tics. The bon­fire of reg­u­la­tions high­lighted by the Gren­fell Tower dis­as­ter, the de­struc­tion of state ar­chi­tec­ture through aus­ter­ity, the dis­man­tling of pub­lic ser­vices, tu­ition fees and the con­trol of schools: all these mea­sures fol­low Buchanan’s pro­gramme to the let­ter.

In one re­spect, Buchanan was right: there is an in­her­ent con­flict be­tween what he called “eco­nomic free­dom” and po­lit­i­cal lib­erty. Com­plete free­dom for bil­lion­aires means poverty, in­se­cu­rity, pol­lu­tion and col­laps­ing pub­lic ser­vices for ev­ery­one else. Be­cause we will not vote for this, it can be de­liv­ered only through de­cep­tion and au­thor­i­tar­ian con­trol. The choice we face is be­tween un­fet­tered cap­i­tal­ism and democ­racy. You can­not have both.

Buchanan’s pro­gramme is a pre­scrip­tion for to­tal­i­tar­ian cap­i­tal­ism. But at least, thanks to Ma­cLean’s dis­cov­er­ies, we can now ap­pre­hend the agenda. One of the first rules of pol­i­tics is, know your enemy. We’re get­ting there.

Despo­tism may be the only or­gan­i­sa­tional al­ter­na­tive to the po­lit­i­cal struc­ture that we ob­serve

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