Monday, May 21, 2012

Why Should This be So?

So, granting that now and in the 1930’s the basic dichotomy of left=economic interventionism; right=non-intervention holds much better in the United States than in Europe, the next question is why this should be so.

I believe what is at work today is not quite the same as what was at work in the 1930’s.  Europe of the 1930’s was still heir of a history where a landed aristocracy once held sway and commercial and industrial capitalists were once the insurgents.   These capitalists were seen as the “liberal” force.   They were the ones who overturned hereditary privilege, separated church and state, established parliamentary democracy and enshrined the notion of individual rights.  They could also be quite brutal and rapacious in economics.  The old landed aristocracy had a paternalistic tradition and regarded the capitalists’ raw pursuit of money and self-interest with distaste.  The conservative aristocracy was not necessarily averse to  some measures to establish a social safety net and protect labor.  Conservative leaders like Otto von Bismarck or Benjamin Disraeli were often at the forefront of such efforts.  The United States was different.  The struggles so hard fought in Europe in the early 19th Century were already won in the United States.  Capitalists (commercial or industrial) were seen as a conservative aristocracy from the very start.*  There was no conservative Bismarck or Disraeli to establish a safety net or labor protection as a modern form of aristocratic paternalism.  Such attempts in the U.S. were always of the left, whether the moderate left in the form of middle class reformers or the hard left in the form of a militant labor movement.   So the dichotomy of conservative = laissez faire; liberal = interventionist was (and to some extend is) much stronger here than in Europe.  This, I believe, was the major dynamic at work in the 1930’s.

Something different is at work today.  Europe’s far right is rebelling against austerity these days not so much because it is laissez faire, but because it is being imposed by a foreign power.  The dichotomy of right wing = nationalist; left wing = internationalist does hold good on both sides of the Atlantic.**   The United States, having its own currency and full sovereign control of its budget, is not being forced into austerity by a foreign power.  Quite the contrary, many Republicans are urging massive cuts to the safety net precisely because it smacks of European-style social democracy that would be un-American to have here.  Europe, by contrast, has the euro.  The European Central Bank, by its control of credit, has considerable ability to limit members’ ability to run budget deficits.  This severely rankles right-wingers, who resent the infringement on their sovereignty.  Defense of sovereignty leads Europe’s far right to advocate what center to center-left economists would recommend – devalue the currency and run up the deficits.  Unfortunately, this essentially sound economic prescription is being yoked with a decidedly ugly trait common to both the U.S. and Europe – scapegoating of the Other.   If the European right is less anti-state than its American counterpart, it can be even more anti-other.

*Of course,we had a landed aristocracy in the form of southern planters.   But in the early years of our Republic, it was the commercial and later industrial elite that was seen as the dangerous aristocracy and the leaders of the conservative party.  When southern planters formed an opposing party, it was the party of the left, of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy acting in alliance with ordinary people against an oppressive capitalist aristocracy.  
**In this, both the United States and Europe differ from Latin America where left-wing nationalism, in the form of standing up to Yankee imperialism, is well established.

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