The Economic Interpretation of History as a Way of Understanding American Politics

With the publication in 1913 of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, Charles Austin Beard (1874-1948) became one of the most famous, influential, and controversial historians in America.  His book initiated a trend that for two generations became dominant in the way American history was written and taught. The thirty-seven books that he wrote during his legendary career—some of them with his historian wife, Mary Ritter Beard—sold millions of copies. He was esteemed and reviled for arguing that from the country’s beginnings and at every turning point in its history, American politics had to be understood mainly through the motives and world view of economic elites.

The kinetic energy of the historical process in America did not suddenly stop with the Second World War, Beard contended. In the years immediately preceding that conflict, he took a leading role in what became known as the isolationist movement. Beard objected to this label, seeing nothing isolationist about following the advice given by George Washington in his Farewell Address, for the American people to mind their own business. Creating a society of republican virtue at home would be challenge enough for them, without assuming the burden of international responsibilities. Beard judged the Farewell Address to be the most profound statement ever issued about American foreign policy. The mislabeled isolationist movement sought to do no more than to honor the first president’s teaching about how the United States should relate to the rest of the world in a spirit of amity and comity, playing no favorites and resolutely thwarting all attempts to coopt American power and influence for partisan foreign ends.

When the fighting began in 1939, Beard opposed American intervention, claiming that at bottom the conflict had to do on both sides with the acquisition or retention of markets, territories, and resources, just as the First World War had done. The two wars were one war, in his view, with a twenty-year armistice in between. Both wars had imperialist motives. Even after Pearl Harbor, he continued to claim that the war fundamentally concerned not the evil of Hitler—as of December 1941 Stalin, our ally, was the greater criminal by far—but the greed of competing empires. In two classic works written after the war, he denounced the foreign policy of FDR as a masterpiece of deception about a fictitious war for the Four Freedoms, which served as a distraction from the real war for economic empire.

Beard never could accept the vulgate interpretation of the Second World War. In the triumphalist postwar years, he came under mounting attack as an unreliable historian and a man lacking in patriotism. His economic interpretation of history became increasingly marginalized, as consensus historians plighted to the cause of American exceptionalism dominated the field. Beard’s stock as a thinker continued its downward spiral during the Cold War, which he described at its outset as a straightforward imperialist contest between the United States and the Soviet Union. Whichever side won, the world would be subjected to an imperialist order. In no way a Marxist, he conceded that the imperialism practiced by corporate capitalism stood on a higher plane of morality than did the Stalinist variety. Nonetheless, Americans deceived themselves when they imagined the cardinal policies in peace and in war of their leaders to be about anything but imperial control.

Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism offers a fresh interpretation of the origins and development of “Beardianism,” as a way of understanding the connection between economics and politics in American history. The book is especially timely today because of the manifest way in which America’s policies for the maintenance and augmentation of its empire have confirmed his predictions of what the country’s fate would be in the aftermath of the “good war.”

austin beard


About the author of this blog post: Richard Drake holds the Lucile Speer Research Chair in Politics and History at the University of Montana where he teaches European and American history.

The Economic Interpretation of History as a Way of Understanding American Politics

Ideas and Things

Can we be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by American culture and politics? Daily we read or more like hear about political polarization, deep ideological divides, a politicized Supreme Court, protests over race and history. Of course, there are histories and context to each issue and conflict, but sometimes what we need is something more fundamental. Behind all these things are ideas.

Intellectual historians have attracted larger and larger audiences that are hungry for explanations about the origins, contexts, and consequences of ideas that seem more powerful than ever. How do we understand a society riddled by profound contradictions—a society that transitioned, most recently, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump?

Ideas matter. A lot. Most people recognize as much. Intellectual history—the study of ideas in the past—thus has a lot to offer people. With my colleague Andrew Hartman, we have co-edited a collection conceived with this basic fact in mind.

We asked the authors to consider the following question: How might the methods of intellectual history shed light on contemporary issues with historical resonance? Their answers, while rigorous, original, and challenging, are eclectic in approach and temperament. For example, to understand the battle for the soul of the Democratic Party between the left and liberals (or supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton, respectfully), Hartman argues we need to grapple with the idea of freedom: “The left’s mission—the reason for its existence—was to expand the idea of political freedom, which was limited and went by the name of liberalism, to include economic freedom, a broadened conception that went by the name of socialism. The route to such freedom was class struggle.”

In another essay, David Sehat helps us locate a position from which to look critically at “originalism” or the idea that seems to capture the politicized nature of the present U.S. Supreme Court better than any other. Sehat explains: “Intellectual historians, like all historians, recognize [the] reality of historical change and growth, which is why they have tended to be some of the strongest critics of originalism. They know that the past is different than the present; that time is corrosive of meanings, arrangements, and cultural ideas at particular moments; that its corrosiveness leaves only remnants from the past that historians must pick over to make sense of now-lost worlds; and that the reconstruction of the past is always, as a result, only provisional and partial. As such there is not, historians have suggested, a set of interpretive rules to be followed by which original meaning will be revealed, since that meaning was contested at the founding and has evolved over the centuries.”

But when we come right down to the most pressing questions of our age, we all want to know “why Trump?”

In her essay tracing the genealogy of conservatism, Liza Szefel wonders in an era that is “post-truth” what good is intellectual history to such a question? She offers an answer: “A line of inquiry gaining traction attempts to move beyond rise and fall narratives to examine conservatism not merely as an ideology, grass roots social movement, or party, but as a sensibility, temperament, and mentality. Casting conservatism as an orientation brings into relief values shared by the left and right.” Indeed, intellectual history uses the tools of social history and cultural history to look at the world—as well as world views—of Trump’s working-class supporters. By doing so, Szefel demonstrates how intellectual history identifies the ideas behind all sorts things, including Donald Trump.


 

About the author of this blog post: Raymond Haberski, Jr. is Professor of History and Director of American Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He is the co-author of the upcoming #CornellPress title American Labyrinth: Intellectual History for Complicated Times. Take a closer look and pre-order your copy here.

Ideas and Things

Open wound: privatizing the Veterans Health Administration (VHA)

After spending more than 30 years researching health care delivery and nursing in the American private, profit-driven health care marketplace, I decided to explore how the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) delivers healthcare to 9 million of the nation’s veterans. Although neither I, nor anyone in my family is a veteran, I knew that the VHA had made impressive strides in implementing healthcare teamwork and improving patient safety. I knew the system was more accountable than the settings in which I –a non-veteran– get my healthcare. I had, however, no idea how impressive the system really is.

Nearly five years observing and interviewing veterans, their families, and their caregivers, showed me how the VHA delivers excellent care –at far lower cost than is available in the private sector– to the nation’s most complex patients.

In Wounds of War, I introduce you to the veterans who receive this care and the dedicated employees who deliver it. I take you into exam rooms, hospital wards, therapy groups, homeless and legal programs, and even cooking classes where the VHA caregivers are interacting with their patients.

And you’ll find that while our broader healthcare system delivers fragmented healthcare services, the VHA is grounded in an integrated model.

It has perhaps the only functioning mental and behavioral health system in the United States and delivers high quality geriatric and end of life care, all while simultaneously addressing patients’ housing, employment, and legal problems.

True, we should all have this kind of integrated care; but it is critical to veterans. After all, military training and service places them at high risk for mental health and substance abuse problems, suicide, chronic pain, homelessness, and legal issues, to name a few.

The VHA has done something really rare in American medicine. Today, many hospitals may advertise team-based care, but will not spend their resources to teach people to work together. The VHA has devoted enormous time and energy to train employees to work on teams. You’d be surprised to find out that a veteran’s primary care provider will actually consult with his or her mental health therapist or orthopedist, social worker, dietician, or physical therapist in a face-to-face conversation –not only through notes entered into a shared electronic medical record–, in order to determine the best plan of care.

Over and over again, I am reminded how lacking this kind of integrated care is outside the VHA.

The other day, a friend who’d been suffering for years from back pain, consulted with a high- priced orthopedic specialist. The specialist peered at his X-rays and declared that he wasn’t a candidate for surgery. Maybe, the physician told my friend, PT would work, or chiropractic, or acupuncture, or even yoga.  Check it out, he advised, as he rushed on to his next appointment. My friend was on his own.

If my friend was a veteran, he would have been scheduled for a visit with an integrative pain team. He would have been helped to enroll in the kind of pain classes that significantly reduce patients’ perceptions of pain and enhance daily function. He would have been scheduled for physical therapy and even signed up for classes of yoga and mindfulness meditation. And all of this would have been coordinated by caregivers, not left in the hands of a vulnerable patient.

Plus, it wouldn’t cost the veteran one dime.

Today, President Donald J. Trump and Congressional Republicans are attacking and trying to privatize the entire system, rather than to improve and strengthen it. They are following the game plan of ultra right wing-libertarian billionaires like the Koch brothers, who have carefully crafted a narrative of a broken government-run healthcare system. Aided and abetted by some Democrats who fail to understand the promise and problems of the VHA, they have passed legislation like VA MISSION and VA Accountability Acts. These laws will outsource more VHA care to the private sector, starve the system of resources, close facilities, vilify VHA employees and shift billionaires of tax payer dollars into the hands of private sector hospitals, doctors, mental health practitioners, medical equipment companies, and even real estate developers.

That’s why I hope you will not only read Wounds of War but also join me and the veterans, healthcare reform groups, and unions that are fighting for the VHA. We owe it to the veterans who have sacrificed for their country to maintain and improve a healthcare system designed to serve their specific needs. And it would also be an important step towards promoting the kind of successful models of care that should ultimately be available to all of us, not just veterans.


For more information on Wounds of War and the VHA, listen to our latest #1869podcast:

 

About the author of this blog post: Suzanne Gordon is an award winning journalist and author who writes about healthcare delivery, health care systems and patient safety. Her last book, The Battle for Veterans’ Healthcare: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Policy Making and Patient Care was published by Cornell University Press in May of 2017.  She received the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Special Recognition Award for her work covering veterans’ healthcare. Ms. Gordon is the Senior Policy Fellow at the Veterans’ Healthcare Policy Institute.

Open wound: privatizing the Veterans Health Administration (VHA)

Political Upheaval: a glimpse into racial politics, state political patronage and the future of Malaysia

Since the early 1970s, capitalism and politics have been organised and rationalised in Malaysia in a distinctive way: the principal stated aim being to transform the comparatively disadvantaged social and economic position of ethnic Malays vis-à-vis ethnic Chinese. Promotion of an ethnic Malay business and state bureaucratic class, together with insistence on Malay political supremacy within the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN, or National Front) coalition, were integral to the strategy.

But in spite of initial improvements for ethnic Malays in general, the model’s real power lay in growing capital accumulation opportunities for capitalists that were closely aligned to the dominant BN party —the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). And as inequality grew, so did BN’s reliance on repression of its opponents and critics. Ethnic and religious nationalism were both used to justify BN rule and discredit challenges to it, but yet this model’s problems would mount.

PARTICIPATION

As explained in Participation without Democracy: Containing Conflict in Southeast Asia, the unequal distribution of costs and benefits of development have exerted political pressures across the region. However, precisely how capitalism is organized affects the bases of support and opposition for particular institutions and ideologies of participation and representation. In neighboring authoritarian Singapore, for instance, the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) interests and ideological dominance link to state capitalism under technocratic rule. Hence, the PAP developed state-controlled consultative institutions and ideologies for incorporating experts, civil society actors and others into public policy deliberations.

Comparable forays in consultative representation in Malaysia were limited and counter-productive. Two national consultative committees—during 1989-90 and 1999-2000—produced governance reform proposals antithetical to the regime’s political patronage systems. As a result, the politically disaffected sought to exploit electoral politics and civil society mobilizations. These peaked under Najib with huge street demonstrations, organised by the Bersih movement pushing for electoral and other institutional reforms.

Malaysia’s May 9 general election result was a shock, ushering in the first change of government in 61 years of independence. To be sure, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government had been on the nose for years, saved at the 2013 election by massive electoral malapportionment. In 2018, though, the scale and range of obstacles to free and fair elections was unprecedented. These included further racially-skewed boundary changes, barring of key opponents, boosts in phantom voters, deregistration of a major opposition party, and an Anti-Fake News law to blunt debate about Najib’s alleged role in Malaysia’s biggest ever corruption scandal.

Yet still one of the world’s most durable authoritarian governments fell, and the Pakatan Harapan (PH, or Coalition of Hope) formed government. Paradoxically, 92-year-old former authoritarian BN leader, Mahathir Mohamad, is again prime minister.

Mahathir’s political comeback was precipitated by allegations of at least $4.5 billion stolen from the state investment company One Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), including almost $700 million siphoned into Najib’s personal bank accounts. Mahathir aligned with Bersih’s call for Najib’s resignation and co-established Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Malaysian United Indigenous Party) in direct competition with UMNO, as the authentic champion of Malays. And in early 2017, HP elected Mahathir leader.

It is an unlikely coalition of forces, comprising alienated members of the old political establishment combined with popular reformist forces, that has made this victory possible. Many of the latter seek the dismantling of racial politics and state political patronage: foundational pillars of the prevailing Malaysian political economy. But how much will government change translate then to regime change? This depends on the way that contradictions within this multi-ethnic coalition are resolved or managed, and how the PH’s technocratic, nationalist, democratic and even authoritarian elements play out to lead change.

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Related article: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-44036178

About the author of this blog post: Garry Rodan is Professor of Politics and Director the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University, Australia. He is also an elected Fellow of The Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Political Upheaval: a glimpse into racial politics, state political patronage and the future of Malaysia