Newsletter #20: Slapping Back the Invisible Hand, with Kim Phillips-Fein

Over the past two years, the belief that left-wing activism is responsible for a surge of right-wing reaction has become a sort of catechism for talking heads and mainstream Democrats who insist that calls to “defund the police” are the single greatest threat to the Democratic Party’s political prospects. For want of immediate evidence, centrists intone sagely about the election of 1972, when George McGovern and his radical supporters pushed white, middle-class suburbanites into the arms of Richard Nixon.

Kim Phillips-Fein’s 2009 book Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal argues against this “backlash” narrative. Phillips-Fein locates the roots of the Right’s rise not in the cultural politics of the New Left, but in the 1930s, when a small group of wealthy businessmen refused to accommodate themselves to the New Deal order. Though their fierce opposition to the welfare state put them at the political margins during the 1930s, these reactionaries helped tame American liberalism in the 1940s and 1950s while laying the groundwork for the Reagan Revolution.

Through the institutions they built and the networks of conservative businessmen they cultivated, opponents of the New Deal waged a decades-long war to transform the ways that Americans thought about the market, organized labor, and the role of federal government. Above all else, they worked to convince people — in particular cultural conservatives — that free enterprise and entrepreneurship represented the highest expressions of human freedom, and thus that any effort at asserting democratic control over the generation and distribution of wealth, must be understood as an assault on the most cherished values of a free people.

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Kim Phillips-Fein here.

At first glance, we can almost read Invisible Hand sas a road map for the contemporary Left: an example of how a small band of committed activists can, over the course of decades of steadfast political commitment, transform mainstream assumptions about economics and politics. But we should be wary of drawing too many direct lessons from this story. After all, few leftists have the cash, and few one-percenters have the inclination, to fund this sort of ideological campaign.

Still, there are lessons to be gleaned from Phillips-Fein’s interpretation of the conservative movement. As we search for a useable past, we should look for links and threads across eras. Just as the roots of the neoliberalism of the 1980s and 1990s might be found in the early New Deal, the roots of some future Left may be found in social formations and forms of protest which seem marginal today.

As Phillips-Fein and Dan discuss in this week’s interview, the limits of the libertarian worldview have been put into particularly sharp relief in recent years. It is — or at least it should be — impossible to view exposure to an airborne pandemic as a matter of individual responsibility. And yet, from the Biden administration’s push for a return to normal while a pandemic still rages, to the feverish utopianism around cryptocurrency, evidence of the persistence of this vision are all around us.

We live in the world these businessmen helped build. But while leftists may not be in a position to precisely trace the path of the businessmen’s crusade, Invisible Handsshould remind us that the political certainties of today may be anything but certain tomorrow.

Further Reading

In addition to Invisible Hands, Kim Phillips-Fein explores the real-world impact of austerity politics in her 2017 bookFear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics. You can listen to a discussion about Fear City on The Dig here. In a recent essay published in the New York Times, Phillips-Fein rejects the false promise of ‘stake-holder’ capitalism, and in The Nation, she fleshes out the history of the twentieth-century right in a review of John S. Huntington’s Far-Right Vanguard: The Radical Roots of Modern Conservatism.

For a deep dive into the intellectual history of neoliberalism, see Dan’s interview with Quinn Slobodian; on the conspiratorial forces pushing free-market fundamentalism, listen to The Dig’s interview with Nancy MacLean; and for a look at the right-wing drift of the Democratic Party, check out Dan’s interview with Lily Geismer.