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"Sunbelt capitalism"

Phoenix, Arizona
Phoenix, Arizona

[Random journal notes.] Reading Elizabeth Tandy Shermer’s Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics (2013). Excellent book, and very ambitious. It's useful as, among other things, a reminder that the main reason the South and Southwest finally overcame their colonial status as little more than providers of raw materials to Northern industry was massive intervention by the federal government during the New Deal and World War II, and afterwards. Massive infusion of funds, building of infrastructure, planning of development—which was aided and continued by states, municipalities, and businessmen’s associations. The “developmentalism” would have been even more successful had local and some national businessmen not opposed liberal policies of high wages, income redistribution, social welfare programs, racial equality, etc., or had they permitted the TVA to be replicated elsewhere.

The book is also a reminder that “neoliberalism” isn’t new. For the Global South, of course, it’s very old. But even for huge swathes of the U.S….well, as you know, the country as a whole was basically neoliberal before the New Deal, and conservatives and most business communities never renounced their commitment to neoliberalism (so-called free markets, anti-unionism, low taxes on business, corporate welfare but no social welfare), and in the postwar era the South and Southwest were semi-neoliberal. Neoliberalism is just….capitalism not tamed by organized labor (and the regulatory, social-welfare regime it buttresses). The “New Deal state” was extremely precarious and limited, under constant attack.

The more you read about politics and society, the more deeply you understand that, to a good first approximation, government exists but to make the world safe, lucrative, and pleasurable for the rich. That’s its purpose. To the extent that it harms the rich or does not heed their interests, it is literally failing in its chief function. The task of popular movements is to change the calculus so that it is in the interest of the rich to help the poor (because if they don’t, the poor will cause mayhem, or at least influence government in such a way that it harms the rich).

The nationwide “tax revolt” of the 1960s and 1970s is an interesting thing to study. It’s usually thought of as having been basically conservative, a movement of white suburbanites against the high taxes imposed by liberal administrations. In fact it was at least as progressive as it was conservative, as much a reaction against business rule as against “tax-and-spend” liberals. In the postwar era of intense competition between states and municipalities to attract business investment, big business had secured incredible tax concessions and corporate-welfare public subsidies, which increased the tax burden on small property owners in both the suburbs and inner cities. So suburbanites and the working class to some extent shared an interest in reforming and democratizing local and state government. Many whites actually used the language of big-business-boosters to criticize business rule: it was contrary to individual rights, free enterprise, and democratic capitalism, it instituted high taxes, it was too in bed with the federal government, it amounted to creeping socialism, etc. (This conservative white “populism” also used the language of God and Christianity more than establishment conservatives did or were comfortable with.) At the same time, civil rights groups, black power groups, the Chicano movement, and other progressive forces were reacting in their own ways against business rule, sometimes overlapping with but frequently opposing the white populist mobilization. So politics at state and local levels, not to mention the national level, was very complicated and confusing/confused. But because of its ideological confusions, white populism and the tax revolt could be harnessed to business’s old crusade against the liberal state, so that the potentially semi-progressive ire became ever more Reaganite-fascist by and during the 1980s. (That sentence is me, not Shermer, but it’s surely true.) And yet the two main strains in conservatism, the populist-fascist and the establishment-conservative, never fused, making possible what we’re seeing now: another rebellion by angry white populists against, in part, the “free trade”-friendly rule of big business (which is semi-confused, again, with “liberalism”), a very scary-to-the-establishment rebellion. For it has foisted Donald Trump onto the Republican Party! Hopefully the country won't reap the whirlwind by electing the orange fascist clown.

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