Twelve years ago, the iconoclastic American left commentator Thomas Frank published The Wrecking Crew, one of those books that irritates because it points out a structure of reality that suddenly feels obvious but was obscured by the very reality it had created.
Frank identified the failure of good government in the George W Bush era of the US, and across numerous republican state governments — as exemplified in the triple whammy of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 crash — not as a failure to govern effectively due to a political theory being wrong, but as the deliberate effort of a political movement that sought to govern badly.
The aim was not — as in the Thatcher and Reagan periods — to (allegedly) run a smaller government, show that it worked better than post-war social democracy, and thus deter a return to the latter by the electorate.
“Wrecking crew” government seeks to govern so badly, per the interests of those governed, that the very machinery of such government is so damaged that it cannot be restored, even if the voters make it pretty clear they want it back.
Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox
The secondary effect of this is that if government provision is now seen as inherently unreliable, a rational choice even for low-income, potential service beneficiary voters is to vote for tax cuts and tax credits.
Even tax cuts that favour the rich — so long as they are part of a package that have some for the poor — will be supported. A tax cut spiral will be instituted. So too will a legitimacy spiral, in which it becomes ever harder for left-centre parties to propose any sort of counter-program no matter how modest.
Thus, as wrecking crew rightism proceeds, it transforms the nature of the political right that is applying it.
The wrecking approach
Thatcherism/Reaganism wanted a smaller domestic state, but an efficient national-military one, providing good infrastructure and projecting global military power.
The wrecking approach abolishes this balance, privileging the private, the atomised and the exuberant at the same time as it removes any real belief in their possible unintended consequences.
Thus enthusiasm for FA Hayek — who is, after all, a theorist of the state — is driven out by a worship of Ayn Rand, an amphetamine junkie anarcho-capitalist, whose disciple Alan Greenspan would run the US economy right up to the edge of the ’08 cliff he didn’t believe existed, and then wonder, bewilderedly, to a congressional inquiry why it had fallen off it.
What would have been taken by the Thatcher/Reagan era as actual political and governance failure, was taken by their successors simply as “new context”.
The Iraq War cost trillions of public money, but made many billions for the private contractors who fed the wrecking crew right’s political ecology.
The 2008 crash offered the chance to permanently break even the most vestigial notion of a social contract and obligation to assist, between rich and poor, that had held since World War II.
Katrina abolished the notion that government actually had a whole-of-society relationship, and could not return to a pre-19th century reform era idea of being indifferent to the living or dying of its citizens.
Such an indifference to any except the most basic cause of maintaining and reproducing power gave this right the sort of manic swagger and appetite for chaos visible, for example, in the no-deal Brexit push.
The only danger to such a way of holding power would be a reversal of fortune so categoric that it threatened that most basic capacity of society to reproduce — i.e. for the same social relations to exist on Tuesday as they did on Monday, and for Wednesday’s to arise from what was done on Tuesday, and so on.
The possibility of this was rejected because its suggestion was most closely associated with climate change, and so the fact of climate change’s sufficient probability (i.e. near certainty) had to be contested not only by flat out denialism, but by a more comprehensive attack on scientific modelling, the act of precaution and, finally, any concern for the future to any degree that would hinder exuberant action in the present.
The COVID-19 challenge
What such a program didn’t count on was a challenge such as the one we have now: COVID-19.
COVID-19 hangs between normal political conditions and catastrophe, rendered by its high infection rate on the one hand and its low lethality rate on the other.
The science-fiction imagination fell short in all those books and movies where a contagion fells millions in the street and breaks down society immediately.
Popular culture could imagine a world where trees emit a gas that makes humans commit suicide (The Happening), but not one where the most basic ways of being human are quickly reorganised by the state as an alternative to a lot of people dying painful, terrifying and, by reason of isolation, abhorrent deaths.
Catastrophe within a system makes a whole preceding political debate pretty irrelevant. The right relied on the idea that if something came apart decades from now, recriminations wouldn’t matter much in an emergency.
Meanwhile capital and the right could hide behind the slow and hidden grinding-down of, first, an enabling state, and then one that was even minimally viable — and its powerful ideological resources could sell this as the natural state of affairs.
COVID-19 lands right between these two states: the grind down and the catastrophe. We suddenly need an efficient state, and nothing else will do. But in the absence of it, a slow crisis grinds on and chaos accumulates.
This is where the US and the UK are at now. This is state chaos in real time, playing itself out in a way that no one can easily remedy because the overarching authority that might be able to do that is the state itself.
In a federal separation-of-powers state like the US the multiple centres of authority empower those operating off a logic of cynicism in the usual way: the self-interested and dishonest actor always has an advantage because corruption and dishonesty are counterfeit forms of integrity and truthfulness, not distinct modalities.
President Donald Trump is not coming out and saying: “Hey, lotta folks gonna die, suck it up, could I care?”
The fantastical lies he tells about testing, being over the worst, are in service to an indisputable idea of “the good” from within a state mechanism whose capacity to deliver has been, and is being, destroyed.
The same process is occurring in a distinctive fashion in the UK, where a tight class-based establishment — stretching across the Conservative Party, the corporate media, the BBC and the new leadership of the Labour Party — appears to be applying or defending a rollout of coronavirus response that appears to be almost random in its priorities.
How is it possible that a unitary, mostly non-federalised government like the UK’s has been unable to deliver a basic coordinated testing response?
How has it had three distinct lockdown regimes over six or seven weeks with no clear logic connecting them?
Why is it only now imposing a two-week quarantine on new arrivals at airports, when tens of thousands of people from high-risk areas have been streaming into the country for months?
Both these responses of a state after the wrecking crew philosophy has deprived it not only of resources but of organisational structures, and institutional practices and memory capable of responding to radically new situations (which is something that the classical liberal side of right politics used to spruik as one of its selling points).
But in fact we may have gone one stage further than the wrecking crew, if an intriguing new study of the western right is anything to go by.
War for Eternity by Benjamin Teitelbaum is a study of the influence of US-UK rightists such as Steve Bannon, and the Boris Johnson consigliere Dominic Cummings, of the obscure school of capital-T traditionalism which flourished in the early- and mid-20th century.
Traditionalist writers such as French mystic Rene Guenon and Italian pre-fascist occultist Julius Evola were more than simply nostalgic conservatives; they argued that not only modernity, but rationalism right back to the Greeks, alienated “man” (very much “man”) from a concrete, organic, indivisible world-spirit which had once manifested itself in a single world religion, then shattered into the visible religions, was then traduced by secular modernity altogether.
Secular modernity, with its doctrines of equality and self-determination, of questioning mastery and a given order (unsurprisingly masculinist above all) was the catastrophe, for traditionalist thinkers, condemning humanity to an annihilated, evacuated existence.
Restoring the order of a life worth living meant seeking out chaos and chaos-bringers. Humanity lived in long epochs, and ours was one of “the slave”.
Philosopher-warriors such as Bannon would find men of action such as Trump — who knew not what they did — to bring such transitions forward and open up possibilities. Traditionalism is thus occultish and mystical, beyond even a Nietzschean politics of the will, and Teitelbaum makes clear its influence on Putin and Russia, for example, via the performance artist turned “National Bolshevik” turned Putin guru Alexander Dugin — and via Dugin its influence on the western-occulted “alt”-right.
For the new “occult right”, wrecking crew politics isn’t enough. Governments must be formed whose leaders’ active role is to rapidly destroy the organisations they have been put in charge of.
This is the philosophy that has guided cabinet and state appointments under Trump (or over his signature by people who continue to have his ear), appointing people such as Department of Education head Betsy de Vos, who believes the public school system should not exist, and an Environmental Protection Agency head who wants to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency.
Most recently, the administration denied a cash injection to the United States Postal Service, one of the country’s public offices that retains a degree of public trust, identification and support.
The extra strain on the indebted service at a time of higher demand on its services is exacerbated by the appointment of a new head, Louis DeJoy — a Trump mega-donor and head of a major logistics firm — who has talked of abolishing the service altogether in favour of private “solutions”.
A disorderly Brexit
DeJoy is simply a corporate privatiser; DeVos a Christian rightist, and so on.
But the nature of such accumulated appointments is a direct assault on the capacity of the government to function, to create a fundamental break — a condition achieved in the UK by seeking the most damaging, arbitrary, deranging form of Brexit possible.
An orderly Brexit, ostensibly sought after, would have been the worst thing that could have happened for such a push.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the occult right wanted to be the chaos bringers. Instead, chaos came as a force of nature in the form of a disease which renewed a public appetite for order and conscientious leadership.
If we got a measure of that in Australia at the federal level that might be due to the not-yet-fully-decadent nature of our right — we have a prime minister who is the product of a cult, happy-clappy in this case, but a relatively mild one — and the delay of a greater crisis of state legitimacy by the absence of structural economic crisis.
That’s ironic in a way. Historically our homegrown right — in the form of James McAuley, founding editor of Quadrant — had dabbled in traditionalism via the works of Guenon (with whom his “Ern” Malley affair co-conspirator Harold Stewart was obsessed, running a Guenon study circle in Melbourne in the 1940s), and parts of Australian post-war rightism were coloured by the Manichean and cosmic notions of such occultism.
(The CCF, the CIA front that funded Quadrant, had to write repeatedly to McAuley to remind him that the magazine was meant to be a front, projecting a notion of disinterested liberal reasonableness, and not a, in our terms, “headbanger”. A dip into the magazine today will show that the occultist headbanging style won out.)
The elements are there. One can see an increasingly “cosmic” and nihilist turn in the intellectual and moral decline of the Institute of Public Affairs, for example, and the occult forces will start to move more actively should a real no-holds-barred economic crunch make its presence felt.
The one thing most likely to check their advance here is what we can see happening over there.
Like ancient insects slowed and then suspended in Russian amber, the chaos-bringers are made visible by a force utterly beyond their control of the out-of-control.