[This review was published in the Winter 2014 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 534-540.]
Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State
Nation Books, 2014
Now 80 years old, Ralph Nader has had a long and productive career as an author and activist on the American scene. His book Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965 about automobile safety and exposing problems with the Chevrolet Corvair is ranked as one of the country’s most influential books of the twentieth century. The present book is his eleventh since that first one, and Nader has had much to say in American politics, running for President five times, once in the Democratic primaries and then successively as a Green Party candidate and as an independent.
Nader is such a respected figure that he avoids the ridicule that multiple “unsuccessful” candidacies might otherwise invite. Always serious, reasoned, independent and balanced, he is just the opposite of a ludicrous caricature. Whether one agrees with him on a particular subject or not, what he has to say is always worth considering. He has a lot in common with Patrick Buchanan as someone who has been too earnest and candid to be a successful politician, but who has provided years of intelligent commentary.
It’s often said that politics “is the art of the possible.” In Unstoppable, Nader turns his hand at pinpointing ways the divergent Left-Right poles in American politics might come together to enact reforms congenial to both. By combining their forces, he reasons, they may be able to prevail over the resistance of the incubus-like establishment of which neither is a fully-accepted part. “I wrote this book to explore the topic of convergence, which I take to be voluntary alliances for the common good by positive-spirited persons of the Right and of the Left.” Why is such convergence necessary? He points to “the deep aversion many people have to the wars of empire and corporate control over their lives….” (our emphasis).
We would hesitate to say that Nader ever “over-simplifies” anything, so it is perhaps worthwhile to take advisedly our observation that the adversary he identifies is actually just part of something much more massive than he pictures it. In this book, the enemy to be confronted by Left-Right convergence is “corporatism,” the sway that Big Business and governments (both national and local) hold in a system of “crony capitalism.” It is a system that produces a vast amount of “corporate welfare” as well as a belligerent, interventionist foreign policy spurred on by the gigantic military-industrial complex about which Dwight Eisenhower so famously warned many years ago.
In the context of the practical issues Nader identifies as candidates for convergence, this identification of the adversary may be adequate. A false impression is given, however, that “corporatism” presently rules America. It is a component of that rule, to be sure; but it is only a part (albeit a large part) of the “establishment” – political, academic, media, professional, ethnic minority, and much more – that dictates “respectable” opinion in the United States. If anyone in the public eye, whether in an official position or in private life, voices an opinion that runs counter to the ever-changing criteria of “political correctness,” a hue and cry goes up that hounds him into a type of disgrace that can hardly be expunged by even the most abject apology. That is what rules the country. It even determines such things as what hangs on the walls of America’s principal art museums, who receives preferment in academic appointment, what officeholders enjoy the praise or suffer the condemnation of the local newspaper and television stations. Thus, the problem is larger, more Orwellian. than Nader pictures it.
Nevertheless, as we’ve said, the fact that Nader’s description of the problem is too narrow has little impact on his discussion of convergence. It avoids the “political correctness” incubus by centering on issues that don’t necessarily invoke the taboos. That is actually quite a sizeable number of issues, as his book shows.
He observes that there have already been several instances of convergence. In 1983, a coalition of “fiscal conservatives” and “environmental/consumer groups” brought about the defeat in the U.S. Senate of additional funding for the Clinch River Breeder Reactor. In 1986 and 2010, Left-Right coalitions passed legislation protecting and rewarding whistleblowers who report “fraud against the public treasury.” In 2003, a coalition passed the McCain-Feingold Act dealing with campaign finance. “In 2011, Democrat Dennis Kucinich and Republican Walter Jones introduced legislation to amend the War Powers Act to strengthen congressional oversight” of the use of military force. And Nader points out that many officials “who have served under both parties, spoke out forcefully against the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.”
Nader’s mind is too fertile be to content with generalizations about the possibilities for convergence. Accordingly, much of Unstoppable provides an extensive list of issues upon which he thinks the Left and the Right can come together. Although some are just mentioned, others are discussed at least briefly. Nader’s purpose is not to analyze any of them in detail, but to provide, in effect, a working manual of suggestions for those who would like to overcome the deadlock in American politics wherever coalitions can be effected. Here are some, but by no means all, of the issues he mentions:
. To fight “corporate welfare” and abuses. Government underwriting of business comes in many forms. One of them results from the ubiquitous scramble by states and localities to attract or retain businesses with taxpayer-funded incentives. Nader specifically mentions the “business leverage” multinational corporations enjoy through their ability “to move jobs and operations abroad.” A specific he refers to more than once is that the Left and Right should converge to stop taxpayer funding of stadiums and arenas. And he believes both sides’ “senses of right and wrong” can move them to militate against such corporate abuses as “frauds on consumers, investors, pensioners, and the government (e.g., Medicare).” A section of the book is devoted to “empowering the shareholders of public corporations” to stop the sort of abuse that occurs when stockholders “see their shares fall as the company is mismanaged or strip-mined by vastly overpaid executives, compliments of their well-fed, rubber-stamping board of directors.” He takes aim at the “leveraged buyout,” where an operating company is taken over, with the collusion of an existing management that is paid “lucrative incentives,” and then “sliced and diced” to “multiply what [the buyer] paid for it many times over.” Knowing the public’s repugnance at such abuses and realizing that idealists on both the Left and Right abhor “corporatism, Nader sees opportunities for convergence.
. To reform government contracting. He believes convergence might well seek to put the full text of government procurement contracts online, to have competitive bidding, and to monitor the satisfactory completion of the contracts. (In the books we have reviewed in this Journal that have told of the ocean of incompetent and misdirected spending by the U.S. government and by non-governmental organizations in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we see that Nader is pointing to something considerably more important than a technical feature of government operation. The profligacy of government contracting has cost tens of billions of dollars and creates what we might call “a pot of gold” for those who would seek to profit from it.)
. To reduce military spending.
. To stop further media concentration.
. To challenge excessive airport screening.
. To oppose the hollowing-out of the American economy. We aren’t surprised when Nader tells how “in 1994 Pat Buchanan and I joined together at a news conference to denounce NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] and the proposed World Trade Organization agreement.” He explains that “we had overlapping concerns, such as the enormous override of our sovereignty, courts, agencies, and legislatures by the unelected transnational governments to which the United States signed on.” These agreements have occupied a central position in the process whereby economic globalization has off-shored the industries and jobs that once made the United States a dynamic manufacturing center.
. To prevent Wall Street bailouts. Both Left and Right have severely criticized the bank bailouts of 2008-9. There is often mention of wanting action that would have been more directly supportive of “the real economy.” In common with so much of the literature on the subject, Nader does not identify his preferred alternatives to the bailouts, or analyze in detail what the economic effects would have been of pursuing them. As we have commented, though, Nader does not intend this book to be a vehicle for anything more than a brief explication of any of his many points.
. To end the abuses of personal liberty spawned by the PATRIOT Act. A striking act of convergence occurred in 2002 “when ex-FBI agent and Republican congressman Bob Barr joined with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to protest the Bush administration’s abuses through the PATRIOT Act, which included unlawful surveillance and invasions of citizen privacy.” Nader further points to “arrests without charges.” He says PATRIOT Act abuses have “continued under Obama.”
. To restrict the power of “eminent domain” to take private property for commercial uses.
. To support a financial transaction tax, to dampen financial speculation.
. To see a more effective collection of unpaid taxes.
. To increase charitable giving.
. To adequately fund enforcement budgets to go after “corporate malefactors.”
. To oppose the patenting of life forms. Here, convergence may in our opinion be less likely. It is by no means clear, especially to people on the Right, that the criticisms of genetic modification in agriculture have scientific merit or outweigh the vast increase in foodstuff production that results from agricultural science. Nader comes close to sounding Luddite when he refers to “what some have called the danger of ‘playing God.’”
. To bring about an annual audit of the Department of Defense budget.
. To restore Congress’s role in declaring war.
. To give taxpayers “standing to sue.” Many government actions, he points out, are shielded from judicial review because only those who suffer a “distinct and palpable” injury are allowed to challenge them in court.
. To initiate a “common dividend” to “dispense regular checks to each American, the way the oil trust fund does in Alaska for every Alaskan.” Nader writes of “having a trust fund drawn from royalties earned from mining public lands,” and cites commentators Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly, both on the Right, as having “proposed a national version of the Alaska petroleum fund.” The sources for a common dividend need not be limited to mineral royalties; instead, as Nader sees, they have the near-limitless possibility of “being powered by increasing automation.” A common dividend can be so serviceable to the values sought by both the Right and the Left that convergence is clearly possible. It can have monumental effects on economics and society, including sustaining the middle class, providing consumer demand for the products of industry, and strengthening a market economy.
In preparing to write this review, we asked ourselves whether convergence on part or even all of these points would address the major challenges facing the United States. Do they go to the heart of things, or are they off on the periphery? The answer seems to be that convergence can actually make a great difference. One of the challenges relates to America’s position in the world. Several of Nader’s points would speak to the problem of “empire,” overseas intervention and military over-extension. Another of the challenges comes from the deindustrialization and financialization of the American economy, the decline of the middle class, and the displacement of work. Again, the points of possible convergence come to bear on this. What they don’t speak to is the demographic replacement of the American people with immigrants from the Third World, a redirection of American civilization through a seemingly gradual but in historical terms quite rapid “genocide” (if that is a word we can apply to a people’s self-inflicted demise and not just to a demographic displacement through violence).
Nader is above all a “man of action.” It would be surprising if he were to suggest so many points for convergence without discussing at some length the practical aspects of how convergence can come about, as well as discussing the obstacles that stand in the way. The obstacles include a reluctance of people on either side, the Left and the Right, to reach out to those they are accustomed to seeing as adversaries; people are fully occupied with what they are doing on their side of the divide; and there is fear that one’s friends and ideological associates will see collaboration as a form of disloyalty to their cause. Nader would hope to cut through these difficulties by seeing an “Institute for the Advancement of Convergence” created. He has had bad experiences with conferences that feature lots of talk without culminating in an action-plan, so he places some hope in a rich benefactor’s coming forward who will serve as the sponsor and catalyst. With delightful playfulness, he ends the book with an open letter to a “Dear Super-Rich Friend.” Are there any billionaires listening?
Dwight D. Murphey
 See this reviewer’s book A Shared Market Economy: A Classical Liberal Rethinks the Market System, available without charge on his website www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info, and also Peter Barnes’ With Liberty and Dividends for All, reviewed in our Fall 2014 issue. The review appears on the website just mentioned.