Duke University Professor Nancy Maclean on Democracy in Chains

Duke University History Professor Nancy MacLean came out with a book last year titled Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (Penguin Random House 2017).

The book received generally positive reviews in the mainstream media and last year was named a National Book Award Non Fiction Finalist.

But it was attacked viciously and repeatedly online, including by Georgetown University Professor Jason Brennan, who said he looked forward to having Duke fire MacLean.

But then again, Brennan is author of the book titled Against Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2016)

A study by the student group UnKoch My Campus looked at 101 attacks on Democracy in Chains and found that fully 90 of them (90 percent) were published by Koch affiliated outlets or by libertarian and right-wing blogs or websites.

The book’s central figure is Nobel Prize winning economist James McGill Buchanan.

“If your readers have never heard of James Buchanan, they should not feel bad,” MacLean told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “When I started the research for this book, I had not heard of him. Nor had I heard of Charles Koch in 2006 when I started. It was a research project into tax subsidized vouchers. Vouchers were being used by the white elite in Virginia to resist Brown v. Board of Education. And they were goading the South into what was being called ‘massive resistance’ to the Supreme Court’s decision.”

“I discovered that Milton Friedman had been involved. He issued his first call for such vouchers in 1955. Initially, the research trail I was following involved Friedman and the Chicago School and other libertarians who were in a sense applauding what was going on in the South – white Southerners promoting private segregation academies using vouchers. These libertarians had such hatred of the public school system.”

“As I got into the research, I discovered this other figure – James McGill Buchanan – an economist who had been trained at the University of Chicago. He developed a different school of thought – the Virginia School of Political Economy — more broadly it was called public choice economics”

“Buchanan set out to make the other side of the case. He wanted to develop a research program that would discredit government. His project is a dark twin of Friedman’s project, which was much more sunny — talking about freedom of choice.”

“Buchanan set out to systematically undermine public trust in government and public confidence that government could do what citizens asked them to do — whether it was regulating air and water quality or protecting the rights of the disadvantaged.”

“He argued that people in public life were not interested in the public good, but were in fact self serving individuals out to serve their own interests.”

Where does that term public choice economics come from?

“They developed that language because it was a counterpoint to market decision making. Originally they called it non market decision making, which was kind of clunky. The public was the most important realm counterposed to the market, so they came up with the term public choice.”

But they wanted to destroy public institutions?

“Buchanan was a smart man. He was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics in 1986 for developing this new school of thought. The idea was precisely to say that it was a mistake to look to government for relief when there were market problems. Buchanan said you shouldn’t assume in advance that a public solution would be better than a market solution. But the people who have taken hold of his ideas and weaponized them – like the Koch donor network – have taken it to an extreme. They say the public solution, the democratic solution is always wrong.”

You say Buchanan came out of the agrarian movement.

“When Buchanan came of age in Tennessee, right up the road at Vanderbilt University there was a school of thought called Southern Agrarianism. And there was a popular work at the time titled –  I’ll Take My Stand. Initially, it seemed like a defense of southern agrarianism and a critique of soulless, modern industrialism. But for many, if not most of the members of that school, they had a deep antipathy to northern liberalism. They were anxious to improve the reputation of the confederacy as kind of a bulwark against northern liberalism, northern labor organizing. That was part of the intellectual milieu in which Buchanan came of age. He takes less of the agrarianism, although he did flirt with that — he had a country home for years and talked about the agrarian ethos. But ultimately, his ideas are much more the hyper-modern neoliberalism of our time, with nostalgic flourishes.”

“What he got from that southern agrarianism was kind of the reactionary orientation to the labor movement, to an expanded federal government in the name of social progress that these conservative white southerners saw as an incipient socialism foreign to America.”

There is a new book out by Steven Stoll a history professor at Fordham University – Ramp Hollow: the Ordeal of Appalachia (Hill and Wang, 2017).

Stoll focuses on how the agrarianism of Appalachian was destroyed by the timber and coal barons — a corporate destruction of Appalachia.

He portrays the Appalachians as agrarians who were self-reliant — grew their own food, hunted, foraged, made their own whiskey — and they were destroyed by the coastal wine drinking corporate elites.

Could anti-corporate agrarianism have saved the South?

“The short answer is no. This was early in the new century. Because of the Civil War, a lot of the capital in the south was wiped out. They had to look north for their economic investment. That offended the pride of many southerners. There are many complicated factors that play into that southern agrarian tradition.”

“The figure I highlight in the book with Buchanan was David Donaldson. He was one of the Southern Agrarian ringleaders. He was one of the more reactionary of the bunch. He wrote about the threat of the federal government as Leviathan, as did Buchanan. He also wrote with a kind of right wing populist register that is very much like what we see today. Buchanan himself was quite proficient in this kind of reactionary populist response to northern liberal elites.”

“From a very early stage, he was melding this ultra free enterprise thinking he got from the University of Chicago and Austrian Economics with these indigenous, white southern reactionary traditions.”

Buchanan started at the University of Virginia, then moved to UCLA for a year, then to Virginia Tech and ended his career at George Mason University.

You say that George Mason University has been corporatized. But isn’t that true of universities across the board – even Duke University – started by tobacco industry money?

“The modern 20th century university in the United States has had significant corporate funding, corporate dominance on boards of trustees, corporate meddling, people going back and forth between universities and corporations,” MacLean said. “Absolutely yes, there is a significant corporate influence which has grown much more pronounced in recent years as state governments have cut back. Some of the great public universities, such as the University of California or Wisconsin — those used to be funded almost completely by their state governments and by tuition. But tuition was pretty modest, because education was understood as a public good. Now, they rely overwhelmingly on a combination of high tuition from students and various kinds of private contributions, often from very wealthy individuals or from corporate sponsored research of different kinds.”

“That is true. But people need to be aware that the Koch donor network operates in a distinctive way, even in that context. There is a new group of students called UnKoch My Campus. UnKoch My Campus has been challenging this general proliferation of gifts with strings to universities. The Charles Koch Foundation has been giving to universities, particularly in the last several years. They are now giving to almost 500 universities.

Charles Koch is the biggest single giver to George Mason University. And they are establishing these outposts with these carefully kept secret donor agreements that enable them to meddle in faculty hiring, sometimes even in the student’s choice of research topics. And they are quite clearly doing this in order to advance their overall political project. They see this as part of an integrative political program. Faculty who can advance these ideas work with the Koch funded State Policy Network, that drives this right wing revolution at the state level.”

The corporate lawyer and soon to be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell penned a memo in 1971 titled “Attack on the Free Enterprise System.” He argued that Ralph Nader and others had to be countered by coordinated corporate campaigns.

Wasn’t that a similar program to Buchanan’s program?

“It was a similar program. I don’t mean to suggest that Buchanan was working on his own. He was part of something called the Mont Pelerin Society, organized by some of Charles Koch’s heros in 1947 – particularly Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. He was a colleague of Milton Friedman and others who were part of that project. It’s sometimes now called neoliberalism, to re-engineer the state to protect capital as opposed to serve democratic interests.”

“The goals are not unique to Buchanan. What was unique to Buchanan was this strategic attention on how to change the rules to bring about this future. And Buchanan repeatedly said, if you don’t like the outcome of politics over the long term, stop thinking about who rules – the particularly individuals or parties – and start thinking about the rules.”

“From the mid-1970s forward, he urged a radical change in rules. Buchanan said that by failing to protect the corporate minority from democracy, every constitution in the world was a failure. What was needed, he said, was a constitution that would make what had gone on over the 20th century impossible. It was that radical a vision.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Nancy MacLean, see 32 Corporate Crime Reporter 4(11), Monday January 22, 2018, print edition only.]


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