Posted by: Doug Henwood | September 23, 2009

Ralph Nader & the plutocrats

I’ve long been struck by Ralph Nader’s imperious view of politics—his preference for progressive change via litigation, not legislation, and a career (during which he accomplished many very good things, don’t get me wrong) capped by a few celebrity presidential campaigns in which he never made any effort to build a movement out of the crowds and publicity they generated. So now he’s out with a “novel” that apparently argues that a small posse of enlightened plutocrats will save us. Citizens’ groups aren’t up to the task, Ralph tells Amy Goodman. Only enlightened businesspeople, working from inside (with the assistance of a perky parrot), can:

When you read this book, you’ll not only get a lift in terms of the feasibility of change, if we only change the predicates and stop trying to go after trillion-dollar industries with a few million dollars of citizen group budgets, and you not only get a lift, but you can see, step by step, the strategy, the tactics—how they set up a People’s Chamber of Commerce with tens of thousands of progressive small businesses around the country; how they set up a sub-economy, where they bought all kinds of businesses and got inside the corporate beast, because they own these companies; how they developed mass media; how they got people’s attention through the use of, for example, this parrot, Patriotic Polly, which got on TV early in 2000 and got millions of emails when it kept saying, “Get up! Don’t let America down! Get up! Don’t let America down!”

So the problem isn’t private ownership and a competitive system driven by profit maximization—it’s simply scale (small good, big bad) and temperament (replace the evil bizpeople with the good ones). He seems to have no idea that competition and profit maximization make people, who may be perfectly warm and lovely in their private lives, do monstrous things. I once heard a very similar line from Ben “Ben & Jerry’s” Cohen, who couldn’t understand how CEOs could both go to church and be nice to their families and then go to work and exploit and pollute.

Of course, as Liza Featherstone pointed out long ago, when faced with a union organizing campaign in crunchy Vermont, B&J fought it as roughly as any thuggish Southern mill owner would. “It’s business, man!,” as Liza’s title explained. Oh, and Ralph did pretty much the same thing when faced with organizing campaigns in a couple of his own shops, Multinational Monitor and Public Citizen. He fired the troublemaking editor of MM, Tim Shorrock, and spread nasty rumors about him, which led Shorrock to this conclusion about Nader:

Ralph Nader may look like a democrat, smell like a populist, and sound like a socialist – but deep down he’s a frightened, petit bourgeois moralizer without a political compass, more concerned with his image than the movement he claims to lead: in short, an opportunist, a liberal hack. And a scab.

And now he’s fully out of the closet as an admirer of the nice sort of plutocrat.

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Responses

  1. Boy, Tim’s take on Nader looks more and more prescient with each year (and each failed Nader vanity run for the presidency)…

  2. Sweet dreams are made of this

  3. When I saw that Tom Peters, of all people, had blurbed the book, I figured we were in for trouble.

  4. Someone should’ve given Nader a copy of “State and Revolution” a few decades ago.

  5. I’m speechless…

  6. problem with the quote from shorrock is that he also assumes that it’s a moral issue embedded in ralph’s personality. he pushed back unions, according to shorrock, because he’s a mere petite bourgeois moralizer, which means that, somehow union pushback wouldn’t happen under someone who wasn’t. it contradicts your other quote:

    “He seems to have no idea that competition and profit maximization make people, who may be perfectly warm and lovely in their private lives, do monstrous things.”

  7. “Shag” – I don’t think that’s fair to Tim. He knows those things. His point is that Ralph isn’t the guy that a lot of his fans think he is.

  8. Plus Ralph doesn’t like Facebook.

    http://tinyurl.com/pdke53

  9. eh. i agree the book is a low point in nader’s career (i certainly have no problem with his presidential runs as i’ve gladly voted for him twice – i don’t think you’re being fair to him there). nader, for all his obvious shortcomings, at least still doesn’t mince words re: corporate power and the democrats’ worthlessness and need to break the duopoly. also i prefer to hear his analysis of politics than just about any other liberal (who is closer to the truth – nader or, say, rachael maddow???).

    p.s. doug – what is your obsession with nader? you seem pretty keen to attack him any chance you get. i would like to see you analyzing things that actually matter…

  10. […] Forget about that democracy and grassroots stuff, he says. Only the super wealthy can save the world, once they get convinced to do the right thing, that is. […]

  11. Yeah, what a fool. Doesn’t he know that the workers are on the job? Or is it Obama? The Greens? I forget….

  12. Oh, wait, I remember: bloggers!

  13. wasn’t a criticism of shorrock. it was a criticism of your use of the quote. :)

  14. Really good post.

    I believe we need a labor party in the US, and the Dems are the enemy. I hate third party politics, because it attracts people like Nader.

    Nader never took a public position, on the Vietnam War.

  15. A strange turn for Ralph, given his career of promoting citizen involvement, but I think he felt he needed to look for new means of jumpstarting the progressive agenda. Can’t buy it, but Ralph at least keeps trying.

    Unfortunately, this has of offered all the obsessive anti-nader people an easy target – een from those who support candidates of wage slavery, empire, and slaughter. So much invective against a guy who has done so much good – including challenging Gore, Kerry and Obama when the rest of the ‘left’ would not.

  16. I’m assuming you’ve all read the book, and not just the title, right? Not all of us have; maybe you could summarize Nader’s point for us.

  17. Austerity is not going to excite the masses , nor is it particularly revolutionary or Leftist.

  18. I hope Alex Cockburn reads your piece. He practically worships the guy.

  19. Nader understands competition, he just doesn’t like being subject to it. He didn’t want union shops in his kingdom because he didn’t want big unions infiltrating his dominion and he didn’t want to compete with the power his minions might exercise. The first worry is the moralist. The second is the moralist authoritarian.

    Nader’s done lots of good things but he hobbled a consumer movement with his paranoia. And he doesn’t trust democracy because he wants his sausage made by experts. His hair-shirt moralism as DH described him years ago makes him pursue a cult of austerity.

  20. Ralph just wants us all to get along in some democratic cockroach capitalist paradise. In this way, he’s kind of like Michael Moore: patriotic, Idealist and morally upstanding–an all too typically left liberal approach to politics in these times. They both make a lot of critical remarks about concerning the ethics of current social Darwinistic levels of ‘greed’; but when working class interest push comes to meet ruling class interest shove, they come down on the side of our rulers more often than not.

  21. correction to my earlier entry: I said Nader had challenged “Gore, Kerry and Obama when the rest of the ‘left’ would not,” but this is misleading.

    A substantial part of the left, including Chomsky but also many of today’s PFO’s, backed Ralph’s effort against Gore (I think D. Henwood even gave a qualified yes).

    Then most had their epiphany and supported Kerry. Politics by revelation.

  22. Nader is practical.

    The Left is not a force in American politics.

  23. The Left is dead because it has no “line in the sand” for the Democratic candidates. No issue to which they will not compromise.

    Sort of like being locked up in somebody’s backyard and repeatedly violated (er, I mean allowed to vote)

  24. for those not infected with anti-Naderism, I’d recommend listening to his interview with Matt Rothschild on Progressive Radio. His idea makes a lot more sense put in context.

    It’s really a spin-off of his previously stated hope that Bloomberg would enter the presidential race independently; not because his politics are great but because it could help break the duopoly. Ralph sees the corporate control of the media and the public’s inability to consider alternatives to the false choices they are offered as requiring a jumpstart, in this novel via well-meaning old rich people, to jolt the system and create openings for citizen re-involvement. Could he be right?

    the idea of a Nader novel made me shudder, too, but look at it as a bookend for his appearance on Saturday Night Live way back when.

  25. Just in case someone is googling “doug henwood and amy goodman” like I was and come across this discussion, I’d just like to make a point.

    I like much of what Doug Henwood has to say and I appreciate his irreverent take on the “left” in America but I’m confused as to why he loves to attack Nader, Naomi Klein et al.

    This post, for example, shows how ill-informed Doug is on the history of socialism. I study the late nineteenth-century for a living, in fact I study late nineteenth-century utopianism for a living. Have you ever heard of a little book called “Looking Backwards” by Edward Bellamy? (and there were many others like it–although they tend to be pro-eugenics which is my take on them).

    It was a best-selling utopia, and rallying cry for socialists of this period. This is the utopian tradition Nader is tapping into. It sounds to me, as I listened to his interview with Goodman, that he’s just trying everything, Doug. He’s frustrated. He is just as frustrated with the left as you.

    And stop getting into the petty stuff, okay? How does this not feed into the cult of personality that your supposed to be rallying us against! Come on!

  26. What you call an “attack” I call a “critique.” I did a detailed review of Klein’s book, and I’ve made detailed analyses of what I regard as the shortcomings of Nader’s politics over the years. How is that in any way petty? The Shock Doctrine is written as if the history of capitalism began in 1973 or 1980. It’s shallow historically and theoretically. It’s empirically wrong about Israel and many other things. You have to wonder how much of Milton Friedman she’s actually read, even though he’s a major whipping boy in the book.

    You know, I’ve actually heard of “Looking Backwards.” Maybe you also know that people of the Marxist persuasion have long been critical of utopian socialism because it’s so deeply naive. That aside, I don’t see how Nader’s looking for the nice CEOs is in any way related to utopianism, unless you want to say there’s something utopian, i.e., impossible, about the actual existence of nice CEOs.


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