Magazine article Dissent

Plutocrats in the Free Market: Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich by Kevin Phillips

Magazine article Dissent

Plutocrats in the Free Market: Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich by Kevin Phillips

Article excerpt

PART ALLEGORY, part compelling empirical truth, Kevin Phillips's latest installment of his ongoing American saga about the historic confrontation between the politically empowered rich and the rest of us couldn't be more timely. On the domestic front the ruling regime oscillates between crony capitalism and a kleptocracy about which people grow increasingly anxious and angry. Meanwhile, depending on your point of view, we are living at the dawn, high noon, or in the golden afterglow of the American Century. Grandiose though he was, Henry Luce could hardly have imagined the fearsome awfulness of the twenty-first-century American imperium when he baptized its birth in the early days of the Second World War. The masters of our fate in Washington now indulge in the dangerous luxury of imagining themselves invincible, pronounce whole nations evil, or grant absolution as a function of their unilateral will and flirt with Armageddon.

What was self-evident even in Luce's day was that there would be no American Century without the practically unchallengable power of American finance capitalism. Phillips's book is a reckoning with that triumph. He has empire on the mind, writes in the dour tradition of Edward Gibbon, Oswald Spengler, and, more recently, Paul Kennedy, and sees in the current American ascension the prelude to its undoing. As the magnates of imperial Spain, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom did before them, the overlords of the American Empire, in global pursuit of paper wealth, are abandoning the productive industrial wherewithal that once accounted for the country's economic and even moral health. They preside over a grossly inequitable and gallingly iniquitous division of wealth that is both the source of their own political supremacy and the disenfranchisement of the great mass of middle- and working-class Americans. Their transparent self-indulgence and criminal proclivities strain popular belief in the ideology of market utopianism that so recently seemed unassailable. Phillips's book is first of all a salient response to the last decade's market triumphalism, a vigorous effort to rescue the country from its social amnesia about the fact that wealth and democracy have been at odds throughout most of American history.

History, however, is not Phillips's strong suit. Moreover, his peculiar take on the country's cyclical experience with wealth and democracy is a telling commentary on his own oddly inflected populism. His is the populism of the "silent majority," which first made his reputation back in the days of Richard Nixon's "southern strategy." Phillips's lingering Republican past leads him to fantasize about some underground tradition of progressive middle-class Republicanism, which in Phillips's quirky narrative confection embraces the governments of William McKinley, Richard Nixon, and Abraham Lincoln. Phillips imagines these regimes as all suspicious of unsupervised wealth and mildly friendly to labor, while nonetheless operating under the dominating influence of the economic elites of their day. The characterization might loosely apply to Lincoln's new party, although the great merchant bankers of the antebellum North were the Great Emancipator's loyal opposition, not his natural constituency. When applied to McKinley and Nixon the notion verges on the preposterous--industrial workers in 1896 were terrorized into voting for the Ohio governor or staying away from the polls, while the whole tenor of the Republican campaign and the McKinley presidency that followed entailed an explicit repudiation of any suggestion of wealth redistribution or government regulation of big business. The evidence for Nixon's labor sympathies seems to consist of presidential invitations extended to the ossified leadership of the AFL-CIO to visit the White House. Phillips himself acknowledges that in every case--even in the one that most robustly supports his argument, namely Teddy Roosevelt's reign--the Republicans soon gave themselves over to the most self-interested, money-mad, socially irresponsible fat cats who always peopled the party's inner sanctums. …

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