Friday, September 03, 2004

What's the Matter With Thomas Frank, Cont'd.

One more methodological complaint about Thomas Frank's new book, (What's the Matter With Kansas? Henry Holt, 2004), and then it's on to the substance of his argument.

You will have noticed from the last post that the author and his admirers agree that there is a reality out there which is unitary and material; it is equally available for scrutiny to all observers, no matter where they are positioned. Good ideas--ideas that are not wrong or deluded--are ideas that reproduce, as in a photographic image, that fixed, external reality.

This is the correspondence theory of truth, the product of Enlightenment. In vulgar Marxist hands, it became known as the base/superstructure model, wherein the material or economic base determined the ideal or intellectual (legal, cultural) superstructure. This is the model now reintroduced to American political discourse by Thomas Frank and now celebrated by influential journalists at The Nation and The New York Times.

Hello? How is that possible in the aftermath of Thomas Kuhn and Alasdair MacIntyre, not to mention William James, John Dewey, E. H. Carr, Hayden White, Richard Rorty, Judith Butler, and Michel Foucault? Oh, and Raymond Williams, our patron saint, who understood, explained, and moved beyond the base/superstructure model Caudwell deployed so eagerly and clumsily.

All of these eminent thinkers (save Caudwell, of course) argue(d) that there is no independent body of fact "out there" to which all parties in an interpretive dispute may appeal. They show(ed) that the facts of the case change according to the model or theory or method or paradigm one brings to bear on the interpretive question at hand. Thus reality is not fixed or inert or given; instead, it is performatively produced, whether in speech acts that create as well as designate a relationship ("I now pronounce you man and wife"), or in scientific experiments that manipulate objects as a way of producing and demonstrating a new truth (a truth that was possible but hitherto unknown). This is not post-structuralism with a French accent, it's plain old pragmatism. Like violence, it's as American as apple pie.

So Frank and his admirers have forgotten or ignored the intellectual innovations of the 20th century, particularly the contributions of our own thinkers. That's pretty amazing in view of the wit and erudition on display in their writing. But no more so than the substantive claims predicated on the vulgar Marxoid model Frank has refitted for duty in Kansas. Let's have a look at them.

(1) First, the inversion of Populism (see chaps. 2, 4, and 9). Once upon a time, about a century ago, Kansas was a radical place, full of fire-breathing folks who blamed "the trusts"--the large corporations--for their economic woes, and who tried, accordingly, to abolish them. They were down with, er, devoted to, the Omaha platform of 1892, which called for the nationalization of railroads, banks, and telegraph companies (at least those that did interstate business), and they were mad as hell at the East Coast capitalists who had invented such diabolical devices.

But now, according to Frank, Populism is a cover for capitalism, not an attempt to abort its emergent corporate incarnation. The Republicans of today talk about "the people," but they serve the corporations by practicing cultural politics--by stressing abortion, guns, gay marriage, etc.--which only diverts everyone's attention from the "real [economic] issues."

Well, OK, it sounds plausible as a historical narrative, this inversion. But has it never occurred to Frank that what was once a radical doctrine has by now become reactionary? Nobody in his right mind would today advocate the program of the Republican Party as it appeared in 1860, or 1890, or 1940, simply because times change. What was rightly understood as radical or heretical or just cranky in 1860, 1890, or 1940 looks reactionary in our time. Populism died an ignominious death at the hands of George Wallace and David Duke. Why do we keep trying to resurrect it? Couldn't we entertain Richard Hofstadter's proposition (The Age of Reform [1855]), that Populism was reactionary even at the height of its influence--that even then, back in the 1890s, it was just as nostalgic for a mythic past, and just as afraid of progress, as our contemporary Kansas crowd is? And not just Kansas, of course, since Frank takes aim at the national culture--Kansas is merely the metaphor for that larger problem. But if this metaphorical reduction (metonymy) makes sense, Frank is writing a latter-day version of Hofstadter's Frankfurt School-inflected meditation on the masses, a meditation, we should note, that associated Populism with authoritarianism.

So maybe Thomas Frank is recapitulating Hofstadter's trajectory by announcing his fear of the masses in this age of "illiberal democracy"?

(2) And what do we make of the simple fact that Kansas was born in and bred by the Republican Party? There's never been a Kansas that wasn't dominated by the GOP, as Frank himself acknowledges from time to time (pp. 67, 89, 91, 174-75) So what's the big deal? A state that once hosted radical politics has become conservative because what was once radical is now conservative. Duh. Yes, the GOP caused the Civil War and conquered the slave South and invented industrial capitalism. Since then, it has not harbored any revolutionary or radical intentions, and has become more and more conservative since the 1940s (Nixon and Rockefeller notwithstanding). If a state's political debates are dominated by this party, why should we be surprised by its trajectory?

Try this as a thought experiment. Could Frank have written a book called "What's the Matter with Minnesota?" No, of course not, because that state, like Wisconsin, has evolved politically in ways that broke the grip of Republican hegemony, edging toward Farmer-Labor movements in the 1920s and, for that matter, long after. Both states were creatures of the same historical moment that produced Kansas, but they haven't remained within the gravitational field of "free labor" or of Populism. A good comparative question would be, Why not? And the answer would begin with two words: Minneapolis and Milwaukee.

(3) How did the conservatives win the heart of America? The subtitle of the book would suggest that they did, they have, it's over. Quite apart from the fact that these conservatives didn't have to work real hard in Kansas (see [2] above), the question remains because Frank himself admits over and over that THE RIGHT ALWAYS LOSES on cultural issues (se pp. 6, 101, 121-25, 141, 206-08, 241). If they're always LOSING on the cultural issues, even in Kansas, how is it possible that they "won the heart of America"?

More to come.