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Dark Satanic Millian Liberalism


Jamelle Bouie makes a great point here. Republican opposition to enhanced unemployment benefits and support for deadly premature openings aren’t rooted so much in a desire for more immediate economic growth as a fear of anything that gives employees too much power:

Back in March, when Congress was debating pandemic relief, Senator Rick Scott of Florida spoke out against a Democratic plan to greatly expand federal unemployment insurance. “The moment we can go back to work, we cannot create an incentive for people to say ‘I don’t need to come back to work because I can do better some place else,’ ” Scott said at a news conference in support of an amendment that would strike the program from the bill. “These employers are going to need these workers to rebuild this economy, so we cannot pay people more money on unemployment than what they would get in their jobs.”

Most Republican senators voted to remove the unemployment expansion at its full size, but it survived. Billions of dollars of benefits have gone to tens of millions of Americans. The increase in aid was so great that, as The New York Times reported last month, the federal poverty rate declined even as the jobless rate reached incredible heights. And there’s also no evidence that additional benefits are keeping people who want to work from working.

But while that is important, I’m less interested in the trajectory of the Cares Act than I am the nature of Scott’s opposition. The Florida senator (and former governor) wasn’t so much concerned with the ability of people to work as much as he was with the ability of employers to discipline them. Workers are kept on edge — and willing to accept whatever wage is on offer — by the threat of immiseration. This, for politicians who back both big business and existing social relations, is a feature and not a bug of our economic system, since insecurity and desperation keep power in the hands of capital and its allies. Even something as modest as expanded unemployment benefits is a threat to that arrangement, as they give workers the power to say no to work they do not want.

This is the reactionary tendency that John Holbo called “dark satanic Millian liberalism” in his legendary essay about David Frum’s Dead Right:

The thing that makes capitalism good, apparently, is not that it generates wealth more efficiently than other known economic engines. No, the thing that makes capitalism good is that, by forcing people to live precarious lives, it causes them to live in fear of losing everything and therefore to adopt – as fearful people will – a cowed and subservient posture: in a word, they behave ‘conservatively’. Of course, crouching to protect themselves and their loved ones from the eternal lash of risk precisely won’t preserve these workers from risk. But the point isn’t to induce a society-wide conformist crouch by way of making the workers safe and happy. The point is to induce a society-wide conformist crouch. Period. A solid foundaton is hereby laid for a desirable social order.

Let’s call this position (what would be an evocative name?) ‘dark satanic millian liberalism’: the ethico-political theory that says laissez faire capitalism is good if and only if under capitalism the masses are forced to work in environments that break their will to want to ‘jump across the big top’, i.e. behave in a self-assertive, celebratorily individualist manner.

“It’s important for ordinary workers to risk death lest they get too uppity” is right at the core of Reagan Republicanism, which Donald Trump and his millions have distilled into its purest poison essence.

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