Prowse on the other America

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Mon Aug 7 13:06:18 PDT 2000

[This is kind of amazing. When Prowse was posted to DC some years ago, he morphed from a rightish social dem into an unabashed admirer of Hayek and the American way - to the point of embarrassing his colleagues on the FT. Now he's back in the UK, filing pieces like this.]

BACK PAGE - WEEKEND FT: From liberty back to equality again: PAUSE FOR THOUGHT: Michael Prowse waits for 'the other America' to reassert its traditional beliefs as two conservative parties fi [sic] Financial Times, Aug 5, 2000, 781 words

If our galaxy were ever to stage a "best commercial culture" competition, the Earth wouldsurely win hands down. It could simply enter America and the aliens on other planets would immediately concede defeat.

No three-eyed monsters, surely, could have embraced market principles with greater alacrity than Americans. There couldn't be more malls, advertising jingles or special offers anywhere else, could there?

I'm being rather unfair. Since Ronald Reagan wrested control of the White House from Jimmy Carter 20 years ago, the US has presented a decidedly free market face to the world (Bill Clinton's election changed nothing in that regard). But hidden behind this obsessive commercialism, there is what I call "the other America".

This is a nation that grew up caring as much about equality as markets, and which defined itself mainly in terms of moral rather than commercial values.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson didn't write: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that God created the market and endowed his creatures with sharp elbows and the desire to become as rich as possible." He wrote instead that all men were created equal, that they have certain inalienable rights, and that "among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

It is true that socialism was never as powerful a force in the US as in Europe. But it doesn't follow from this that all, or even most, Americans have an uncritical love of the market. Many thoughtful voters - intellectuals especially - now find themselves well to the left of both the main political parties.

They regard their own country as over-commercialised and admire many aspects of European culture, such as the greater commitment to economic equality and social inclusion.

This week's carefully staged Republican convention will not have converted them to George W. Bush's brand of "compassionate conservatism".

Bob Kuttner, the US commentator, speaks for some of the disaffected in the August issue of Prospect magazine when he dismisses the Clinton presidency as largely a failure. Kuttner accuses Clinton of failing to enact meaningful social reforms and of failing to make a case for a properly "house-trained" version of capitalism.

Instead, Clinton gratuitously embraced large chunks of Reagan's philosophy (think, for instance, of his pledge, duly honoured, "to end welfare as we know it"), thereby shifting the political centre of gravity decisively to the right, not just in the US but also throughout the world.

"The problem with the third way, in the style of Clinton and Blair," writes Kuttner, "is that you begin by meeting the conservatives half way. When that doesn't quite succeed, you meet them half way again. And again. Soon, you have two conservative parties."

British readers may regard this as unduly harsh, given Clin ton's economic record and the Blair government's tendency, for its own political reasons, to treat him as a demi-god.

But it's almost certainly true that centre-left politics would be healthier today (certainly less spin-bound) if a more egalitarian and principled Democrat - say George Mitchell, the former Senate leader - had enjoyed two terms in the White House. And Clinton's economic achievements shouldn't be overrated.

Any responsible Republican (such as Bush senior) would have enjoyed similar success, since he would also have cut the deficit and enjoyed the benefits of a cyclical upturn, new technology and the long Wall Street boom. Oval Office machinations never did, and never will, create economic dynamism.

When the choice rests between Al Gore, or Clintonism on autopilot, and Bush junior, it is hard to imagine "the other America" (the one that genuinely cares about inequality) getting much of a hearing. But it exists.

As a nation the US can claim credit not just for Milton Friedman, the free market economist, but also for one of the great political philosophers of the 20th century: John Rawls, whose vision of an egalitarian liberalism inspires deep thinkers everywhere.

Sadly both Clinton and Blair regard Rawls as dangerously leftwing and subscribe instead to a Friedmanite "don't mind the gap" doctrine, which says that it doesn't matter how rich the rich get so long as a few crumbs are left for the poor.

But Rawls, with his ingrained sense of fairness, is just as quintessentially American as Friedman. He stands in a tradition running back to Franklin Roosevelt, and beyond.

And the US can claim credit not just for the Robber Barons of the late 19th century, whose swashbuckling style and shameless lack of social conscience are so uncannily mirrored by today's corporate titans, but also for the pragmatists and progressives who took them on.

I'm thinking of the fair-minded men and women who argued for a highly progressive income tax, for anti-trust legislation, for public pensions and for unemployment insurance.

I'm thinking, above all, of the creators of the US's tax-funded high schools, which provided a better education up to age 18 than was then available in much of Europe and so helped underpin the US's 20th century economic hegemony.

These weren't products of the profit motive but of an egalitarian urge now temporarily in abeyance.

The "other America" will exert itself in due course. The focus will shift from liberty to equality again, reflecting the complexity of the founding fathers' vision.

But Kuttner may well be right to argue that Clinton, in many respects, set back the Democratic cause, that he weakened rather than strengthened the precious progressive spirit.

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