kim-phillips-fein-invisible-hands.thumbnail.jpgI’m very proud to help introduce the work of Kim Phillips-Fein to a wider audience. Way back in the mid-nineties in New York, a bunch of us aspiring professional public intellectuals used to get together for drinks every couple of weeks. Kim was the brightest of the bunch. She demonstrated her exemplary intellectual citizenship in an searching and stylish series of articles and reviews in magazines like The Nation, The American Prospect, and In These Times. And when she won the biggest dissertation prize in the American history field in 2007, none of us who knew her work were surprised.

The dissertation was called “Top Down Revolution: Businessmen, Intellectuals and Politicians Against the New Deal,” and its unique contribution was revealed in the first two works of the title. Much recent scholarly work on the conservative ascendancy has been influenced by the post-1960s principle that the stories of social movements are best told from the “bottom up”—from the perspective of ordinary people, not elites. That makes sense when the subject is a union organizing drive. It doesn’t always make sense when the subject is political shifts that—as we all know—colossally advantage the wealthy and powerful.

Thus the story Kim tells, Invisible Hands, is the book version. That title is significant here too. It’s a pun, of course, on Adam Smith’s description of how a laissez-faire economy is supposed to work; where when each individual directs his “industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he in this [is] led by an invisible hand to promote an end which has no part of his intention.” The hand is invisible because there is literally no hand directing anything from above; just unconnected individual decisions collectively producing well-being and prosperity.

Well, the figures Kim writes about are a hell of a lot more pushy than that.

We’re talking about people like the DuPont family, who organized a “Liberty League” in the 1930s to try to sabotage the New Deal; the National Association of Manufacturers, which openly organized corporations to defy the National Labor Relations Act; front groups like the “Farmers’ Independence Council,” which “did not actually number a single family farmer among its members” (Lammot du Pont insisted his 4,000 acre estate made him a farmer); William Baroody, who dreamt of “a network of conservative think tanks that could rival the university system;” and Lemuel Bouware (who I like to call the most important figure in American history you’ve never heard of), who, as head of General Electric’s labor relations division, was one of the pioneers of the modern “focus group”—which he used to figure out ways to get factory workers to distrust their union leaders, and to see corporate executives as their saviors. He later hired Ronald Reagan as a touring lecturer to help him with the job.

Here “invisible hands” means something different. The hands are literal, but hidden: front groups, public relations strategies, propaganda campaigns laundered through schools and churches, all designed to sabotage any possibility that a democratic polity might vote itself a union-friendly welfare state delivering the greatest good for the greatest number. Why were they invisible? Because, as Kim demonstrates with great drama and dry wit, they tried visibility and it failed. The DuPont’s New Deal-era Liberty League described itself unapologetically as a “propertyholders’ association,” to give “business, which bears the responsibility for the paychecks of private employment…voice in government.” The idea was to defeat FDR for his 1936 reelection. Instead, the fact that more than half the league’s funds “came from fewer than two dozen bankers, industrialists, and businessmen” became all too obvious to the public, and the League “rapidly became the symbol of the recalcitrance of those reactionaries whom Roosevelt dubbed ‘economic royalists’ in his 1936 reelection campaign.” One Democratic official called it the “America Cellophane League,” because ‘First, it’s a Du Pont product, and second, you can see right through it.”

And thus henceforth the plutocrats would hide their hands. But their hands would always be present. They figured it out. Their story is continuous, from the 1930s until today: selfish interests working behind the scenes to preserve their own advantage, hiding their power plays in the cloak of idealistic and noble principle. So-called ordinary citizens rising from the grassroots, defending their liberty by holding massive “tea parties” across the nation. You know the drill.

According to one obscure quote Kim dug up from a Texas businessman, “The capitalist system can be destroyed more effectively by having men of means defend it than by importing a million Reds from Moscow to attack it.” Thus these men of means would ever seek to recruit men of the soil—and “intellectuals” as well—to defend it instead. Kim Phillips-Fein’s new book is the best place to start if you want to understand how all of this came about.

Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein