What's the Most Important Book of Political Philosophy in the Last 20 Years?

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I was watching an interview with the philosopher Slavoj Zizek a while back, and the interviewer asked him what he thought the most important work of political philosophy was in the last twenty years. I was certainly intrigued to hear Zizek's answer, but I was expecting him to name some work by one of the many cover_whatsthematterheavyweight European philosophers of the past decades (Badiou, Agamben, Laclau, something like that). Instead I was actually quite surprised by his answer- he said in his opinion, it was Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. What's the book about? Well let me quote the beginning of the recent Beams article by Joe Corbett, where he links to Frank's book in the middle of this passage- "A classic problem in critical social theory is why a large chunk of the working class in democratic societies seem to consistently vote against their own economic interests, and give their loyalty and support to those who do the bidding of the power-elite and wealthy".

Frank shows how the Republican party in America basically created the culture wars in that country to drum up support from a certain (large) segment of the population, and then how they systematically implemented (neoliberal) economic policies that undermined and continue to undermine that same voting base. They also concocted the caricature of the elitist, latte drinking, Volvo driving, wine sipping, Ivy league Liberal establishment as the scapegoat/bogeyman that was responsible for ruining the country (again, taking eyes away from their own economic policies/agenda). As Franks succinctly puts it, "[The conservative establishment] mobilize voters with explosive social issues...which are then married to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends" (p.5).

Here's how Zizek describes Frank's thesis in his own book First as Tradegy, Then as Farce:

Thomas Frank aptly described this paradox of contemporary populist conservatism is the US: the economic class opposition (poor farmers, blue-collar workers versus lawyers, bankers, large companies) is transposed or recoded into the opposition of honest hard-working Christian true Americans versus the decadent liberals who drink lattes and drive foreign cars, advocate abortion and homosexuality, mock patriotic sacrifice and "provincial" simple ways of life, and so forth. The enemy is thus perceived as the "liberal" elite who, through federal state interventions- from school-busing to legislating that Darwinian evolution and perverse sexual practices to be taught in class- want to undermine the authentic American way of life. The conservatives main economic demand is therefore to get rid of the strong state which taxes the population in order to finance its regulatory interventions; their minimal economic program is thus "less taxes, less regulations". From the standard perspective of the enlightened and rational pursuit of self-interest, the inconsistency of this ideological stance is obvious: the populist conservatives are literally voting themselves into economic ruin. Less taxation and deregulation means more freedom for the big companies that are driving the impoverished farmers out of business; less state intervention means less federal help to small farmers, etc.

Although the "ruling class" disagrees with the populists' moral agenda, it tolerates the "moral war" as a means of keeping the lower classes in check, that is, it enables the later to articulate their fury without disturbing the economic status quo. What this means is that the culture war is a class war in a displaced mode".

I've been wanting to add Thomas Frank's work into the mix here at Beams for a while now, and I'm glad Joe Corbett beat me to it in his important article. Here are a couple of videos with Frank where he discusses these issues. The first is an interview with Bill Moyers about What's the Matter With Kansas. A key section is between the 7-10 minute mark. You can find the second half of the Moyers interview here, and Frank also discussed the book with Charlie Rose in an interview you can watch here.  



Next is a long talk that Frank gave at Powell's Books in Portland, in support of his follow up book The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. It might be an hour but its well worth the time.



And Frank has a brand new book called Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right. You can watch Frank on this book and other political topics in this recent interview with Democracy Now.

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  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Thursday, 12 January 2012 23:58 posted by Chris Dierkes

    interesting response indeed. Do you remember why Zizek felt it was the most important? It's definitely a really important piece, but the American-centric nature of it intrigues me. Obviously the US has global influence, but I wonder what Zizek's criteria/understanding of most important is.

    Either way, nice find dude.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Monday, 16 January 2012 01:36 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Chris, good question, didn't hear him say anything about that. I had the same thought the day I was posting it; oddly American-centric for such a broad question. But it's hard to say what would motivate Zizek, or why he might strategically choose that answer.

    Also, I listened to the series of David Harvey lectures on Neoliberalism that Joe Corbett linked to (which are great!), and Harvey argues that a variety of neoliberal tactics have been utilized in several different countries. He ultimately argues that the neoliberal period was a explicit political project leading to the restoration of elite class power. Neoliberal policies also dominated the world institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank through the 'Washington Consensus'. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington_Consensus] So perhaps Zizek was pointing to a particular in order to bring attention to neoliberal policies and their global impact more broadly/universally. But, that's speculation, Zizek didn't give any indication in that interview. He just wiped his hair aside and dug in. :)

    (Here's the link to Harvey lectures on Neoliberalism if anyone is interested. I'll be listening again tonight, they are very, very key in my view

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Monday, 16 January 2012 02:04 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Also, just wanted to add one more resource in regards to the "Unholy Alliance" that Joe Corbett refers to explicitly in his article, and is central to Frank's work in 'What's the Matter With Kansas' and 'The Wrecking Crew'.

    It's a podcast at Homebrewed Christianity called 'Radical Political Theology with Clayton Crockett'. Beginning at the 23 minute mark Crockett gives a historical overview of the alliance between the Republican party and the Christian right. He also- beginning at 28:00- talks about how that same Christian right is starting to wake up to the fact that they've been duped. He says:

    "Now, with hindsight, a lot of evangelicals, a lot of Christians, have come to realize- and I think this was the case all along- that they were being used by the Republican party, and by a lot of these sort of Machiavellian, neocons- the former Vice President Richard Cheney [for instance]- they were using this energy, this passion, this religiosity, for their project for a new American century".


    And as Frank points out in the second video (and with Moyers), the Republican don't ever really move on the culture wars, and when in Washington (where Frank was hanging out for years) they don't give a rat's ass about the moral desires/requests of the religious right. Their concerns vanish in that context.

    At any rate, the fact that many Christian groups are waking up to the fact that they were used- and undermined economically to boot- is probably a good sign overall.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Tuesday, 07 February 2012 19:32 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Here's an additional footnote to this piece, via Robert Brenner in the New Left Review (2007):

    "In other words, [the Republican right] could hope to amass sufficient white working-class support to realize its straightforwardly anti-working class project—and thus to overcome the problem that had bedevilled the American right since Goldwater: how to win electoral support for a domestic programme that was transparently against the economic interests of the great mass of the population, and a foreign policy that appeared both reckless and redundant?

    The answer, as we have seen, was to look to the South, both as model and as electoral base, to construct an anti-statist individualist ideology founded on white supremacy, defence of the patriarchal family and Protestant fundamentalism. It was the Republican right’s success in constructing this ideological formula, and in identifying the liberal state as a central threat to the racial status quo and ‘traditional family values’, that provided it with the wherewithal to contend for power on a brazenly pro-business programme".


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