From Church & State: Autumn 2007, No. 90

Corporate Kansas—Part One

Part One of Review of What's the matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank.
(Owl Books 2004 and 2005)

The title for this book comes from an 1896 article by William Allen White, a distinguished journalist from Emporia, Kansas. The article possibly swung the Presidential election of that year in favour of the Republican, McKinley. That year was the closest that the Nebraskan, William Jennings Bryan, Christian "fundamentalist" and socialist icon, came to the White House. How different things might have been if Bryan had won! More about Bryan later on, I hope. Frank's basic thesis is that Kansas over the last forty or fifty years has been standing on its collective head. The question he sets out to answer is why its people consistently vote against their self-evident economic interests, and most notably in the Presidential elections of 2000 and 2004. Bush is portrayed as the new McKinley, dominating the states which used to look to Bryan. The solving of this conundrum, Frank believes, will go some way to explaining what has been happening in the United States as a whole since the state is an anticipator of national trends in undiluted form, so it's a worthwhile case study.

I suppose I hadn't thought much about Kansas until I read Frank. If I had been asked what I knew about it I would have replied with a series of unconnected images: cattle, wheat, gunslingers, the Great Plains, an unflattering reference in a monologue by John Cleese, Woody Guthrie, The Wizard of Oz, the confusing business about Kansas City not quite being in Kansas, Bob Dole (the veteran Senator and onetime Republican contender for the White House), and the Kansas City Prophets. I didn't know much about the Prophets except for a couple of names. But I see they have over a hundred thousand entries on the Web, and some of my readers might find it interesting rather than profitable to dip into these. They achieved an entrée into the more mainstream evangelical world over twenty years ago through their temporary endorsement by the late John Wimber, an endorsement which the latter, a sincere if deluded man, came to regret bitterly.

According to Frank, Kansas is also the home of Pizza Hut, and has pioneered other national trends. Around 1870 the Kansas radicals came up with crazy ideas like women's suffrage. Their modern counterparts have explored the merits of denying the vote to women. There seems to be one Kansas township where it's illegal for citizens not to have firearms in the home. Some of Frank's other examples are curious: I didn't think that opponents of water fluoridation were all crackpots; and as for the inhabitants of the state's most scenic region fighting "with fanatical determination to prevent a national park from opening up in their neighbourhood", isn't that just what most of the people of South Down seem to be doing with regard to the proposed National Park in the Mournes? So the Kansans may be no crazier than us.

I had meant to say before now that this is a really great book. That's the most important thing I can say about it. Everything else I say should be read in that context. Imagine if you like a writer with the wit and punchy flair of a Mark Steyn but without the slickness. Underneath Frank's verbal sparkle there is a sort of righteous anger brewing, a frustration with the blind alley of what passes for populist politics in present day Kansas, and a refusal to patronize the militants of the so-called conservative revolution. As he argues, in its own way it isn't a conservative revolution at all but a radical movement which has enjoyed electoral success at the same level as the Populist movement of the late 19th century. The only difference is that the people are being led away from the promised land. In those areas where I would disagree with Frank he has forced me to re-examine the basis for my disagreement. As for Jim Wallis's book, God's Politics, which I recently reviewed for Church & State, all I can say is that I recently came across a woman reading it in a concert queue, and courteously suggested she chuck it. Wallis covers much of the same ground but refuses to venture upon the really dangerous places. Specifically he pulls his punches when dealing with the gods of corporate America. Where Wallis is earnest and measured, Frank is deadly serious and lets fly.

The main problem with this book is that it's so quotable. The temptation is to quote whole reams of it and I think I'll succumb to that temptation. First of all the stirring climax of the prolegomenon:

"From the air-conditioned heights of a suburban office complex this may look like a new age of reason, with the Web sites singing each to each, with a mall down the way that every week has subtly anticipated our subtly shifting tastes, with a global economy whose rich rewards just keep flowing, and with a long parade of rust-free Infinitis purring down the streets of beautifully manicured planned communities. But on closer inspection the country seems more like a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: of sturdy blue-collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of working-class guys in midwestern cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life, will transform their region into a 'rust belt', will strike people like them blows from which they will never recover."

I suppose I must have had a picture of America as a sort of vast Switzerland, a society full of self-governing semi-independent communities going about their business comparatively unmolested by the federal authorities, a land where a hundred flowers could bloom. While I wouldn't want to forsake that comfortable vision altogether, I have to say that I'd failed to realize the extent to which the people of the "flyover states" are dominated by corporate imperatives which have destroyed their culture, their identities, their whole way of life. Conservatives like me have to recognize that this is a form of social engineering different only in degree from what Stalin was attempting with his forced collectivisation policy: the only difference is that this time it's being done by the unbridled forces of capitalism. I should add that in America, and in Kansas in particular, the Kulaks have been conspiring in their own destruction.

Frank, himself a native of the Mission Hills suburb of Kansas City explains what has happened to the beef industry based, now largely based in Garden City in the far west of the state:

"Beginning in the sixties the big thinkers of the meat biz figured out ways to routinize and de-skill their operations from beginning to end. Not only would this allow them to undercut the skilled, unionized butchers who were then employed by grocery stores, but it would also let them move their plants to the remotest part of the Great Plains, where they could ditch their unionized big-city workers and save on rent. By the early nineties this strategy had put the century-old stockyards in Chicago and Kansas City out of business altogether. As with every other profit-maximizing entity, the industry's ultimate preference would probably be to have done with this expensive country once and for all and relocate operations to the third world………sadly for the packers, they are prevented from achieving that dream by various food regulations. So instead they bring the workers here, employing waves of immigrants from Southeast Asia, Mexico, and points south.

"On the High Plains the packers are just about the only game in town. And they use their power accordingly. They threaten to close down a plant if they don't get their way on some issue or other. They play towns off against one another the way sports franchises do. Who will give the packers the biggest tax abatement? Who will vote the fattest bond issue? Who will let them pollute the most?

"…….The area around Garden City is a showcase of industrialized agriculture: vast farms raise nothing but feedcorn despite the semiarid climate; gigantic rolling irrigation devices pump water from a subterranean aquifer and make this otherwise unthinkable crop possible; feedlots the size of cities transform the corn into cowflesh; and the windowless concrete slaughterhouses squat silently on the outskirts of town, harvesting the final product. Take a drive through the countryside here and you will see no trees, no picturesque old windmills or bridges or farm buildings, and almost no people. When the aquifer dries up as it someday will—its millions of years of collected rainwater spent in just a few decades—you will see even less here.

"One thing you do see these days are the trailer-park cities, dilapidated and unpaved and rubbish-strewn, that house a large part of Garden City's workforce. Confronted with some of the most advanced union-avoidance strategies ever conceived by the mind of business man, these people receive mediocre wages for doing what is statistically the most dangerous work in industrial America. Thanks to the rapid turnover at the slaughterhouses few of them receive health or retirement benefits. The 'social costs' of supporting them—education, health care, law enforcement—are 'externalized', as the scholarly types put it, pushed off onto the towns themselves, or onto church groups and welfare agencies, or onto the countries from which the workers come."

And as for Wichita in the southern part of the state, a city just a bit smaller than Belfast, it has been sent crashing down by a massive corporate shrug of the shoulders on the part of Boeing. After several years away Frank came back to take a look:

"There were so many closed shops in Wichita when I visited in 2003 that you could drive for blocks without ever leaving their empty parking lots, running parallel to the city streets past the shut-down sporting goods stores and farm implement stores. Once I simply stopped my car for several minutes in the middle of what my map claimed to be a busy Wichita thoroughfare; there was nobody around. Along Douglas Avenue the city's main drag, there used to be a famous sign that arched over the throngs, crowing 'Watch Wichita Win'; these days the street is lined with bronze statues of average people, apparently so it doesn't look quite so eerily empty."

We've all seen those job advertisements that prophesy "The successful candidate will…." This is the way that Boeing went about making its decision on where to base construction of its 7E7 airliner. A competitive tendering system was set up. The winning town was to answer to Boeing's shopping list:

"The competing states responded by generating statements of high romantic love for Boeing and obsequious promises of eternal meekness. People in the Puget Sound [Washington State] area remembered how Boeing had once criticized the state for having high taxes and workers' comp costs; now they declared themselves ready to change all that, with attractive tax incentives and a promise to make the state's troublesome environmental bureau into 'a more business-friendly' outfit.

"Plain-spoken Kansas tried to compete in its direct red-state way by heaping money at Boeing's feet."

Setting aside the desperate problems they were already having in trying to balance the state budget, the legislature voted a huge bond issue for Boeing, to be raised by state taxes. This was a form of compulsory state capitalism: Boeing was to repay the capital, but the people of the state had to foot the bill for the interest. And this peculiar arrangement was put in place purely to attempt to safeguard the jobs of the existing Kansans employed in the Wichita plant. They managed to safeguard some of the jobs, for a few years, until Boeing decided that Wichita might not be central to its corporate vision after all. I remember some years ago Eamonn McCann mocking those who, as he thought, imagined that the bosses in Monsanto were having sleepless nights as they pondered the damage that might be done to the social fabric of the city on the banks of the Foyle by the company's departure. It's clear from Frank that the welfare of the American heartland means nothing to the CEOs, so they're even less concerned, if that were possible, about communities elsewhere.

Some of Frank's best writing details the dereliction and general air of hopelessness in what now passes for small-town Kansas, a place which in his youthful imagination he had peopled "with all sorts of righteous Jeffersonian yeomen". He imagined "tidy prosperous shops and quiet, rustic, Hemingway types, stoically enduring their round of toil on the banks of the romantic Arkansas so that all of the undeserving city people could freeload through life". After taking us through the downtown squalor of Emporia, William Allen White's home town, he writes:

"This kind of blight can't be easily blamed on the usual suspects like government or counterculture or high hat urban policy. The villain that did this to my home state wasn't the Supreme Court or Lyndon Johnson, showering dollars on the poor or putting criminals back on the streets. The culprit is the conservatives' beloved free-market capitalism, a system that, at its most unrestrained, has little use for small-town merchants or the agricultural system that supported the small towns in the first place. Deregulated capitalism is what has allowed Wal-Mart to crush local businesses across Kansas and, even more important, what has driven agriculture, the state's raison d'etre, to a state of near collapse."

For Wal-Mart substitute Tesco, less red in tooth and claw maybe, but still one manifestation of the Great Satan. I've seen this happen in my adopted home town of Ballymoney, where Tesco at one end and Super Valu (why is it considered attractive to misspell everything?) at the other combine to suck the retail life out of the rest of the town. The problem with Tesco is that, not content with just selling groceries, it aims through its bulk ordering and loss leader systems to undercut clothes shops, camera shops, kitchen shops, petrol stations, and every other kind of shop you can think of, so that ultimately we'll be left with no choice but the Tesco big tent. This is the trend that G.K. Chesterton saw coming and campaigned against in his Outline of Sanity. I suppose it's one of the many Chestertonian paradoxes, how the multi-nationals are the enemy of business, just as agribusiness is the enemy of farming.

It's interesting to note the instinctive aversion of those in government to the Small Is Beautiful principle. When Gordon Brown wants to cosy up to business he invites Digby Jones the Chairman of the Confederation of British Industry into his inner counsels. In Northern Ireland Brian Faulkner's achievement as Minister of Development in the 1960s was to induce companies like British Enkalon, Dupont, Monsanto, Hoechst, Michelin and so on to set up substantial plants. Not all of these withered but many did; and when they had gone the smaller family-owned textile businesses became visible again, until most of them eventually went under, faced with far eastern competition that couldn't humanly be competed with.

Incidentally, I read somewhere lately that in West Virginia, the ultimate blue collar state, Wal-Mart is the biggest employer, with its low-grade, low-paid jobs with no prospects. Once upon a time the labour force was dominated by the miners and the mill workers. I would strongly recommend to anybody who hasn't seen it the 1987 film Matewan, directed by John Sayle, which didn't go on general release in Europe, and deals with a savage confrontation between miners and mine owners in the 1920s.

Most of Frank's time is taken up with working out how and why Kansas has enlisted on the conservative side in the "culture wars" of modern America. It had always been a Republican state, from the days of the "free-soil settlers" who were encouraged to go out west to outflank the "slave states" like Missouri. Of course the Republicans were the socially progressive party in those days. But it was Republicanism with edge and attitude.

Kansas was the home of the Populist movement of the 1890s, "the first of the great American leftist movements". Small farmers all across the state who were on the brink of ruin rose up in fury to sweep the Republican establishment out of office. The fury has endured but has taken a different form:

"Today the two myths are one. Kansas may be the land of averageness, but it is a freaky, militant, outraged averageness. Kansas today is a burned-over district of conservatism where the backlash propaganda has woven itself into the fabric of everyday life.

"Today's Kansas has got the hell-raising farmers and the class-conscious workers all right, but when they come sweeping through the state legislature, clearing out the old guard, what they are demanding is more power for Wall Street, more privatization, and the end of Progressive Era reforms like the Estate Tax."

The moderate Republican ruling bloc in the state legislature, typified by men like Bob Dole, which all through the 1980s had been "passing legislation like a well-oiled machine" found itself on the defensive from 1991 onwards with the rise of the highly-motivated, agenda-driven fundamentalist protest movement. Confusingly Frank calls these people the "cons" (they seem to be anything but conservative) as contrasted with the corporate country club culture of the privileged "mods". The occasion for this transformation of the political landscape was the launch of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion protest, which brought Wichita to a standstill during the summer of 1991.

"The journalists were right about the coming 'voters' revolt'; what they got wrong was the identity of the revolutionaries. This was no moderate affair. The ones who were actually poised to take back control of the system were the anti-abortion protesters. Theirs was a grass roots movement of the most genuine kind, born in protest, convinced of its righteousness, telling and retelling its stories of persecution at the hands of the cops, the judges, the state, and the comfortable classes. They had no newspaper of their own—the Eagle, for its part, ran story after story in which activists warned against the maniacal ambitions of the Bible-thumpers—but one of them did set up a 'Godarchy hotline', a telephone number you could call to hear recorded suggestions for action."

In Kansas the backlash against the exploiting classes takes the form of digging down in search of authentic, usually Christian, American values, as set out in songs like Merle Haggard's (presumably) tongue in cheek Okie from Muskogee, which was an anthem of Middle America in the 1970s. Of course every so often Hollywood deigns to take notice of the rednecks, in films such as Sweet Home Alabama, which trots out every stereotype in the book, and the unspeakably dire Elizabethtown; and the rednecks are often happy to fall in with the Hollywood clichés. The revolutionaries that Frank writes about however, even if they do seem to parody themselves at times, reject Hollywood and all her works. Frank indeed makes the pertinent point that the coarsening in popular culture which has been seen in recent times isn't a product of social engineering by liberals, but is the outcome of consumer capitalism doing what it knows best. This failure of analysis by the cons leaves them fulminating impotently on the wings:

"In a media world where what people shout overshadows what they actually do, the backlash sometimes appears to be the only dissenter out there, the only movement that has a place for the uncool and the funny-looking and the pious, for all the stock buffoons that our mainstream culture glories in lampooning. In this sense the backlash is becoming a perpetual alter-ego to the culture industry, a feature of American life as permanent and strange as Hollywood itself."

The fury of Frank's cons in tearing down the fortresses of the mods has been a blessing in disguise for the latter, argues Frank. The focus has been on nebulous concepts such as family values, or else on Roe v. Wade, so the cons are bogged down in the trenches using up all their energies in battles they are never going to win, while the corporate big shots continue to get their way unchallenged. For this state of affairs Frank blames the Clinton Democrats as well. The point is that those who have an interest in holding the robber barons to account have been deflected from their duty, or have cynically rewritten their manifestoes to appear "business-friendly" and get elected.

I would like to say something more in the next issue about the mistakes of the Christian "Right" in America, with a few glances closer to home.

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