For years, decades actually, I alternated between identifying as a “conservative-libertarian” and a “libertarian-conservative”, often settling on “centre-right” as a seemingly coherent link between the two political philosophies. It was in March 2016, after reading Kevin D. Williamson’s article “Chaos in the Family, Chaos in the State: The White Working Class’s Dysfunction” in the National Review, that I began to re-evaluate these labels. Williamson’s strident condemnation of working-class people and struggling manufacturing towns sounded like Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, only in reverse:
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about wily Orientals stealing our jobs … The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does Oxycontin.
Seriously? Is this how a centre-right conservative thinks when people’s lives are upended by an unholy alliance between Global Inc and Communist China?
This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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In defence of Williamson, he does offer this caveat to his denunciation of the poor, the vulnerable and the unemployed: “They need real opportunity, which means they need real change, which means they need U-Haul.” There is no “magic wand”—to quote Barack Obama from the same year that Kevin D. Williamson made his pronouncement—to revive the business of making things. Those shattered by the de-industrialisation of America should secure the services of a moving and storage business and relocate immediately to Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Seattle, Manhattan, Houston or somewhere else where opportunity beckons. Barack and Michelle Obama, perhaps heeding Williamson’s advice, formed a production company in 2018 called Higher Ground. They signed a multi-million-dollar deal with Netflix to make “a wide range of fiction and non-fiction signature productions for all audiences including scripted, unscripted and documentary series, as well as full-length features and documentaries”. Whatever. The first Obama project, American Factory, showcased a Chinese communist billionaire opening a new factory in the husk of a derelict General Motors plant in Ohio and hiring 2000 local blue-collar workers. Is it possible that we have misunderstood the philanthropic nature of Communist China’s takeover of the world? Notwithstanding the glowing assessments of Beijing’s handling of the pandemic crisis by the likes of Bill Gates and the regime’s own English-language news outlet, the Global Times, the answer must be an emphatic no.
On the matter of international trading arrangements, to put it bluntly, there has not been a lot of difference over the years between a standard centre-left and centre-right perspective. Both sides supported NAFTA, Beijing joining the World Trade Organisation in December 2001, the TPP trade deal, and so on. Just as progressive types such as the Obamas, the Clintons and even the Sussexes have sought to ride the wave of globalist entrepreneurship, so have the likes of Williamson and numerous other self-described conservatives championed the mechanisms of our global “free market”. The Marxist axiom of capitalist versus worker has been transformed into cosmopolitan-open versus patriotic-closed. Now the power elite in a Western nation-state can, irrespective of what we have come to call “politics”, share a similar view about business-as-usual business. The centre-left could afford to ignore the anti-globalist anarchists on their left flank, and the centre-right, in a similar vein, were able to disregard the anti-globalist Right on their right flank. The Tea Party in America, the National Front in France, One Nation in Australia and so on were fringe dwellers. Patriotic populism looked destined to remain on the periphery until the unexpected rise and rise of the improbable patriotic-populist Donald Trump.
Patriotic populists have no less a problem with Global Inc than Bernie Sanders-style left-wing populists. It is not, however, an identical problem. Anti-globalists who align themselves with Sanders tend to view our epoch as Late Capitalism, while patriotic populists might see it as the Administrative State or, to take that a step further, a real-life manifestation of George Orwell’s Oligarchical Collectivism. In the case of left-wing populism, or undisguised Marxism, Global Inc is largely characterised as transnational corporations in all their different forms, banking, investment, insurance, mining, manufacturing, agri-business, transportation and retail, operating in conjunction with the political agencies of a given nation-state. It was generally assumed, at least during my time as a Marxist in the second half of the 1970s, that autocratic regimes, such as Augusto Pinochet’s in Chile (1973 to 1990), provided the most favourable conditions for multinational corporations to attain lucrative profits abroad. One of the unspoken advantages of political repression and state terrorism, according to critics on the Left, was the emasculation of the local, independent union movement. This had the not unwelcome effect, from the point of view of the multinationals, of keeping wages low and the workforce “disciplined”.
The historical nexus between multinational corporations and (mostly) right-wing tyrannical regimes received extra scrutiny in the 1990s with revelations about the role of such corporations as Ford, General Motors and IBM in the Third Reich. A slew of (mostly) left-wing writers and journalists launched into the amorality and myopia of corporations that have only ever had one ambition: the maximisation of profits. Julian Borger, writing for the Guardian in 1999, disclosed that freshly unearthed documents “revealed that Ford had links to Auschwitz”. Certainly, the American corporation’s German subsidiary, Ford Werke AG, employed slave labour at its Cologne plant. H.A. Turner’s General Motors and the Nazis tells the story of GM’s purchase and ownership of Opel. And then there is Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust, which details the effect of IBM’s punch-card technology being employed in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. IBM, at the time, was a minor figure in the pantheon of American corporations and its computational equipment primitive by contemporary standards, and yet a reader is left with the suspicion that a multinational corporation—and not just IBM—would do anything, and I mean anything, to turn a profit.
These charges of wartime collaboration are unsettling for any number of reasons but the one most pertinent to this discussion is this: how can we trust multinational corporations—not just the above-mentioned but the very idea of transnational businesses—if they are prepared to traffic with the Devil simply to maximise profits. It is possible, if not entirely plausible, to argue that German companies in the 1930s and early 1940s could not prevent themselves from being co-opted by Hitler’s regime. Every member of a totalitarian society is compromised to some degree; it is a question of the degree. If, for instance, an anti-Nazi husband-and-wife team chose to hide in their household an enemy of the state—Jew, gypsy, socialist, army deserter—they put their own children at risk. If a nosy neighbour spied the situation and was likely to report this “crime” to authorities, then the neighbour had to be silenced. In this way, totalitarian societies turn honest people into compromisers or killers. For German companies, as for a captive German people once the Nazis achieved total control, even the smallest decision was potentially problematic. Obviously the gradations of moral culpability are open for debate in such circumstances. The same cannot be said of Global Inc.
Though we have had a relatively open and detailed scrutiny of American corporate collaborations with totalitarian Germany, this had rarely been true of the morally ambiguous partnership between Global Inc and totalitarian China. There are many reasons for this, some of which I outlined in “China and its Australian Apologists” (Quadrant, October 2019), and include the delusion that China’s Party Politburo would eventually choose the “fifth modernisation” of democracy. The strength of a communist regime is that it does not relinquish its monopoly on power; its potential fatal flaw is that it cannot relinquish its monopoly on power. Here lies the key characteristic of what is essentially an armed private organisation that does not rule so much as it vanquishes. The Party Politburo has no legitimacy, at least not in any Western sense of the term, because it imposes itself on a captive population without the mandate of the people. Instead, its mandate comes from heaven or, to put that in CCP vernacular, from the barrel of a gun or the weapons of surveillance. The tyrants of Communist China remember, better than anyone, that Communist Russia was doomed from the moment the Soviet Politburo selected Mikhail Gorbachev to be its leader, just as Communist Poland, Communist Hungary, Communist East Germany and so on unravelled as soon as the relevant regime began down the path of glasnost (openness) and demokratiya (democratic reform). Consider that China’s Party Politburo sent out its PLA tanks, on the evening of June 4, 1989, to slaughter university students for sitting around in deck chairs and clogging up Tiananmen Square.
The pervasiveness of WeChat, computer games, BMWs, skyscrapers, fashionable clothes, ugly urban flyovers, smog, disposable income, bullet trains and the state-generated algorithms of the internet have turned the PRC into a perverse imitation of America, Europe, Japan and Australia. China is no more “modern” than the Soviet Union after Stalin’s 1930s makeover. Ask the 1.8 million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities who, as disclosed in the bipartisan US Commission on International Religious Freedom, are incarcerated in “1300 concentration camps”. Ask the Tibetans. Ask the Falun Gong. Ask the Christians. Ask anybody who has dared to question the “correctness” of Xi Jinping’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. There is, of course, no point in asking the locals about the Tiananmen Massacre because the autocratic regime now has the technological wherewithal to erase all references to June 4, 1989 + Tiananmen Square + Massacre. They have disappeared into a “memory hole” the likes of which even George Orwell could never have envisaged.
And who provided the Party Politburo (“Inner Party” in Orwellian terms) with the high-tech expertise to create the perfect surveillance operation? According to William Giannetti, in his November 2019 article for the National Interest, “Why Are American Companies Helping China Build an Artificial Intelligence Authoritarian State?”, the answer can be summarised in four words: the maximisation of profit. All the usual suspects, Big Tech in other words, in conjunction with a plethora of smaller spin-off tech companies have provided Communist China with all they need to become a leading force in everything from artificial intelligence to the DZJ-08, a multi-purpose recoil-less gun specialised for use in urban areas and confined spaces. We have come a long way since IBM sold its punch-card technology to the Reich Commissariat for the Occupied Dutch Territories, and yet is there not something of pattern when it comes to multinational corporations engaging with totalitarian regimes? Do we need to point out to so-called free-market fundamentalists, and here we must include Kevin Williamson, that maximising profits is not always a moral imperative?
This was obvious to sports fans around the world when the CCP threatened war against the NBA after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support of anti-Beijing demonstrations in Hong Kong last year: “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.” Morey, sounding a little like a defendant in one of Stalin’s show trials, was quick to retract:
I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives. I have always appreciated the significant support of our Chinese fans and sponsors … I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention.
NBA celebrities were conspicuously silent after CCP-controlled organisations in China threatened to ruin financially any NBA team or personality that dared to defend Morey’s original comment, or even his right to make the comment. The sort of money involved in global sport would give the uninitiated vertigo; Communist China, with its captive audience of 1.4 billion, is a key part of that equation. NBA celebrities, like the journalists, artists, businessmen and sports stars of Communist China, decided that discretion is the better part of valour. These are the same American sporting heroes who take every opportunity at home to shout their political views, which are usually anti-Trump. Hunter Felt, writing for the Guardian, asked the question: “Are NBA stars and coaches hypocrites for not speaking out on China?” After a fairly even-handed account of the players’ predicament, he concluded that “at best” they were hypocrites; more likely, though, the Morey controversy indicated a deeper truth: “At worst, it’s evidence that China’s reaction to Morey’s tweet has already served its purpose in creating a chilling effect throughout the NBA.” I would go even deeper. We cannot expect Global Inc, be it a gigantic transnational corporation or a professional basketballer selling his or her wares on the world market, to speak up for freedom. We have been warned.
Williamson’s denunciation of the America First refrain, and patriotic populism more generally, is not just a case of anti-working-class bigotry—although that might explain some of his animus. Williamson’s problem is a consequence of his misapprehension of the three pillars on which the conservative movement in America, and to some degree in Australia and other Western nation-states, is built. Fusionism, as expounded by the National Review’s Frank Meyer, attempts to gather together traditional conservatives and libertarians in the “Big Tent”. Not a few traditionalist and libertarian purists chose not to opt in to William F. Buckley’s modern conservative movement, and yet its importance to the Republican Party was crucial up to the patriotic populist insurrection that commandeered conservatism in 2016. President Reagan, especially, underlined his gratitude and praise for the National Review and its foundational contributors, including Frank Meyer, most of them long gone before Williamson’s arrival on the scene. Reagan, on a number of occasions, expressed his fusionist faith that traditional conservatism and libertarianism were complementary philosophies along the lines that conserving the American way of life, not to mention Constitution, safeguarded and promoted the rights of the individual better than any other political system known to humanity.
The libertarian and traditionalist wings of the conservative movement are only part of the narrative. The anti-totalitarian aspect of the National Review’s founding is the glue that has bound the whole project together. Ronald Reagan openly acknowledged the importance of James Burnham’s anti-appeasement view on Soviet communism. Burnham was also a seminal figure at the National Review. President Reagan presented America’s original Cold Warrior with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983 with these words: “As a scholar, writer, historian and philosopher, James Burnham has profoundly affected the way America views itself and the world.” We can see, in hindsight, that victory in the Cold War exposed tensions within the conservative movement. This disunity and absence of an urgent purpose might explain why the House of Bush, with its own tepid re-interpretation of the Big Tent, captured the citadels of the Republican Party. Our own PC-compliant Malcolm Turnbull also possesses no clear political purpose apart from a sneering disregard for traditional conservatives, a comprehensive antagonism towards unionism and a blinding belief in Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming: surely a sign that conservative-libertarianism or libertarian-conservatism is dormant or even dead.
Kevin Williamson, with his crude politically-incorrect jibes, might regard himself as something altogether different from an American RINO (Republican in name only) or what we would call a LINO (Liberal in name only). Then again, the oh-so-progressive Atlantic had no compunction in hiring him, albeit for less than a month, as their token “conservative” opinion columnist. The Atlantic sacked Williamson when it was reported that he had argued, in a 2014 National Review podcast, that the “proper punishment” for a woman who had an abortion included hanging. Here we have the apotheosis of libertarian-conservative or conservative-libertarian idiocy in which both pro-choice and pro-life points of view are mocked for the advancement of Williamson’s bad-boy contrarian persona. The other end of the moral or philosophical spectrum, I would suggest, is a pro-life Christian who also has libertarian pro-choice sympathies and is generally disturbed by the phenomena of modern-day abortion. That is not to say robust conservatives, unlike sensitive progressives, need to be “triggered” by Williamson’s contrarianism; but we do have to understand why a centre-right polemicist ended up dismissing populist criticisms of Beijing’s quest for global hegemony as “conspiracy theories about wily Orientals stealing our jobs”.
It is a question of what we choose to privilege in the fusionist equation: the market; traditional principles; or liberty. The latter is less about individual self-determination, which is where Williamson would put his emphasis, than national sovereignty. For the patriotic populist, conversely, national self-determination is the starting point. In earlier times, according to Burnham’s Suicide of the West, liberalism and patriotism were almost interchangeable—liberals were patriots and patriots were liberal. “Liberalism”, in the American sense, has evolved since then and today left-wing libertarians are as likely as not to be internationalists and equate patriotism with xenophobia or white supremacy. Right-wing libertarians, including Williamson, currently returned to the National Review as a “roving editor”, are not necessarily unpatriotic. Nevertheless, his 2016 article shows that he believes it is best for ordinary and vulnerable Americans to get aboard business-as-usual globalism. It is not for the United States, in the person of Donald Trump and the populist insurrection that swept him into power, to shape Global Inc to serve the needs of the American people.
Nonetheless, the coronavirus pandemic confirms, if nothing else, that an unfiltered or unchecked acceptance of global market forces is not in the best interests of the citizens of a nation-state. Australia is no exception to that rule. For instance, the international trading order, comprehensively corrupted by the predatory pricing of China’s state-backed corporations, has left Australians exposed in the area of pharmaceutical and other medical supplies. Although Communist China directly services only a small proportion of our pharmaceutical requirements, it remains the chief supplier of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) to the American and Indian companies that, in turn, package our pharmaceuticals. Retired Air Vice-Marshal John Blackburn was pointing out the dangers of our growing dependence on Communist China long before the advent of COVID-19: “If China were to cut off its supply of drugs or APIs to the United States, it could lead to a public health crisis [in Australia]”. Already a propaganda arm of the Party Politburo has talked of withholding medical supplies to America and casting it “into the mighty sea of the coronavirus”. The editor of another state-owned outlet, the Global Times, claimed that “Australia is gum stuck to the bottom of our shoe” for requesting an investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Meanwhile, Beijing’s man in Canberra, Cheng Jingye, warned that the people of China might “lose their taste” for Australia’s wine and beef if Scott Morrison and others persist with talk of an inquiry into the genesis of the pandemic. Malcolm Turnbull, along with mining magnate Andrew Forrest, was quick to caution our democratically elected and sovereign government against angering Beijing. We’re all NBA players now.
Except it is not true—or, at least, not entirely true. We cannot, in the first instance, count on multinational corporations to do the right thing. They will shift manufacturing off-shore to maximise profit, exploit non-unionised foreign workforces, sell highly advanced technology to an imperialist-Leninist regime such as operates in China, pressure our sporting heroes to remain silent amid glaring cases of injustice, and induce us to appease the homicidal paranoia of the PRC’s Politburo. Neville Chamberlain had more moral fortitude than members of Global Inc. Additionally, we cannot expect supra-national agencies such as the World Health Organisation to moderate Beijing’s hubris—quite the opposite if the tenure and tenor of its current director-general, Tedros Adhanom, is anything to go by. For what reasons of public health, we might like to know, is Taiwan prohibited from membership of the WHO? Adhanom’s body is at the very least an honorary member of Global Inc. The same could be said of philanthropic operations such as the Clinton Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Hillary Clinton and Bill Gates have come to the defence of Beijing during the current pandemic: she has pronounced it racist to refer to the Wuhan Virus as the Wuhan Virus, and he has dismissed the idea of investigating the origins of the pandemic as a “distraction”.
There is only one serious contender for the role of standing up to Global Inc, and by extrapolation China’s Communist Politburo, and that is the sovereign power of the nation-state, starting with the United States of America but certainly incorporating the Commonwealth of Australia. Given that Communist China’s pockets run very deep, we cannot depend upon just any politician or political movement to defend the integrity of his or her compatriots. Peter Schweitzer, in Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends (2018), notes that while the Obama-Biden administration remained hands-off during the period in which President Xi Jinping’s regime militarised the disputed waters of the South China Sea, Hunter Biden’s private company made a financial killing in the PRC, with the financial assistance of a Chinese state-backed investment firm, to the tune of $1.5 billion. Australia is not immune to the problem. Duncan Lewis, former head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, was reported in the South China Morning Post as recently as last year as saying that Chinese agents have been “making large contributions to Australian political parties as part of a wide-ranging influence-peddling that also targeted media and the country’s universities”. Anyone for an Aussie-flavoured patriotic populist uprising?
If we were to follow the logic of free-market fundamentalists—as if the “free market” is anything more than a delusion—we would, as Kevin D. Williamson counsels us, contact the nearest moving and storage company and hightail it out of our rust-belt towns and communities. One small problem with this plan is that the CCP Virus has quarantined us in our rust-belt towns and communities. There is also the fact that many of us want to remain in our rust-belt towns and communities in order to defy Global Inc. I am thinking of the new Facebook site called Australian Made Products. Its membership seems to grow by about 50,000 with the passing of every week. I never would have guessed that so many manufacturers, albeit family-owned enterprises for the most part, still exist in Australia. Supporting sovereign manufacturers, rather than blithely purchasing PRC merchandise, has become quite the fashion on our pandemic-affected island. Locally made goods might cost more than what is sold in Target or K-Mart, but who wants to contribute even a dollar to the grand imperialist ambitions of China’s Communist Politburo? Now, at last, we have the kind of resistance I can get behind.
Daryl McCann, a regular contributor to Quadrant, has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au, and tweets at @dosakamccann. He contributed “Emperor Xi Has No Clothes” to the May issue.