The Road to Theocratic Serfdom
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Sep 09, 2006 at 08:07:07 PM EST
In 1944 F.A. Hayek published The Road to Serfdom. In it, the libertarian-minded economist warned that societies with "centrally planned" economies (read that either as New Deal-style Liberal or British Labour governments) eventually succumb to tyranny. It was his belief that contemporary liberal economics leads directly to the rise of a despot. But if Hayek were alive today, he would see that the very thing feared by traditional Conservatism--Caesarism--would come from the Right's more fundamentalist religious allies.
Upon its release The Road to Serfdom. immediately became popular among the ranks of the tradition-minded British Tory class. It was also well received by American conservatives many of whom hated the New Deal and its progeny. By 1948 Reader's Digest published an abridged version while General Motors released a comic book film version. In fact, shortly before she became Prime Minister, speaking before Parliament Margaret Thatcher held up a copy of the book and thundered, "...and this is what we believe."

Hayek did not, however disdain all activist government. He actually called for a limited role to police the deforestation, control monopolies and limit abuse of working conditions. But he did advocate a laissez-faire approach to business, equating it with freedom and liberty. "The planning against which all our criticism is directed," he wrote, " is solely the planning against competition.") In this, the Austrian-born economist feared that New Dealism in America as well as the mixed center-Left economy advocated by Britain's Labour Party would fall short of a promised "utopia" which in turn would cause unrest and a ultimately a slide into strongman tyranny.

Ironically, the New Deal actually served as a bulwark against the tyranny Hayek's predicted. As Jonathon Alter noted when FDR had the opportunity to declare himself a dictator immediately after his first inauguration. Others such as Truman, Eisenhower, JFK and LBJ also never attempted to sweep democracy aside.

Hayek failed to recognize that the lack of an activist government creates a power void. Liberals have always understood that the federal government of the people needed enough muscle in order to deal with the excesses of centralized economic power of trusts, monopolies and polluters. In fact, a government built upon liberal democratic principles is the greatest deterrent to the centralized power of a plutocracy.

But while Hayek was correct about a central authority being susceptible to a power grab, he did not foresee that in America the greatest threat would not come from the descendents of Keynesian economics, but from those on the Right who now advocate a centralized authority of faith.

Indeed. Secular Libertarian conservatism has been superseded by the emergence of an alliance of neoconservatives and the Religious Right. (caps added) Their activities are often underwritten by major rightist Foundations via the creation of "Astroturf" organizations such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy who disguise the motives of a plutocracy in the garb of religious faith. They openly encourage a mixture of invective spewing pundits and ultra-conservative clergy to instigate hate for the mainstream Left. This very unholy marriage no longer seeks to merely roll back "the excesses" of the Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, but to destroy its source, New Deal Liberalism.

Liberalism unlike pure socialism does not advocate the elimination of either profit or private property. Instead Liberalism democratizes capitalism. It does so by distributing profits more fairly to all those who contributed to its creation. As a result buying power of the many is increased; workers and smaller business owners have the greater ability to purchase homes, cars and other articles of property.

Even though the meritorious distribution of profits is part and parcel of both the Protestant Social Gospel and Catholic Distributive Justice movements, it is the antithesis of what much of the Religious Right desires. And that is important reason why certain corporate interests are funding this socially conservative movement to demonize Liberalism and its proponents as "ungodly." Within the Catholicism members of Opus Dei seek to steer the Church away from its current teaching of Social Justice while using the IRD to undo the Social Gospel message of the mainline Protestant churches.

For brevity's sake, the General Motors comic book film version.

is useful at illustrating where Hayek was prescient about the abuse of religious authority. But instead of "socialist planners," the new authoritarians are a coalition of culturally conservative evangelicals and ultra-orthodox Catholics. Here are some examples from specific frames:

Number 7: "They try to sell the plan to all... In an unsuccessful effort to educate people to uniform views, "planners" establish a giant propaganda machine."

:  "The gullible do find agreement...
Meanwhile, growing national confusion leads to protest meetings. The least educated--thrilled and convinced by fiery oratory form a political party."

Gullible is a term that is rather insulting in the present case. However, the Religious Right and its agents do use confusion and misinformation in order to create a backlash against Liberalism. To that end, Liberalism is inaccurately portrayed as "socialism" and having an organized atheistic agenda. As a result, good hardworking people who put their trust in certain clergy often have that trust betrayed. They do not see what goes on behind the scenes in Washington think tanks funded by wealthy scions of the Right. Ordinary Americans who are just trying to pay a mortgage, put food on their table and raise children often don't have the time or stamina to personally research the motives of nefarious actors.

A perfect example of this is how the far-Right punditry is orchestrating a well-exaggerated "war on Christianity." This is done primarily to feed a backlash. And once the backlash is created it is then channeled to ultimately weaken progressive institutions that truly safeguard the Common Good. If liberalism can be vilified then it is easier to vilify and destroy liberalism's many successes--Social Security, Medicare and environmental protection. Perhaps they might even succeed at eroding the basic notion of commutative social justice.

Number 10: : "A strongman is given power...: In desperation, "planners" authorize the new party leader to hammer out a plan and force its obedience."

This is clearly evident in the Religious Right's continuing adoration of President Bush, And while the president is not a dictator, his numerous abuses of power is not only ignored by the Religious Right, but defended. The message is simple and effective: to be against President Bush and his policies is to oppose God's will.

Number 12: "A negative aim welds party unity...: Early step of all dictators is to inflame the majority in common cause against a scapegoat minority. In (Nazi) Germany was Anti-Semitism."

Isn't this what we now hear from Ann Coulter when she dissembles about Liberals being "godless" or from the ever bombastic William Donohue when he rants about "secular Jews" in Hollywood. And this scapegoating is clearly present in Bill O'Reilly's
allegation of an imagined organized "war on Christmas."

But nowhere is it more pernicious than in voices of certain religious leaders who inaccurately proclaim that the United States is and always has been a Christian nation. Obviously such exclusionary-minded folks have a very particular form of Christianity in mind. Such belief is the precursor of a coming undemocratic society where individuals are no longer judged on their merit but simply by their beliefs.

Number 13: "No one opposes the leader's plan...:Ability to force obedience always becomes the No. 1 virtue in the "planned state..."

What better way is there to extract blind obedience from people of faith than to threaten them with eternal damnation? Fear is the watchword of the New Right. This is reflected in the invective unleashed by hateful candidates such as Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) who recently proclaimed, "If you are not electing Christians, tried and true, under public scrutiny and pressure, if you're not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin."

And such stifling of dissent has brought us now to the age of the unitary executive. Patriotic opponents of the current administration's policies are tarred as "fifth columnists." It is also present in the dissembled statements of Rush Limbaugh who earlier this week again esoterically equated dissent with treason. Their so-called patriotism is nothing more than nationalism, the dark step beyond a reasoned love of country. The Caesarism so feared by generations of mainstream conservatives has not risen from a populist surge of the Left, but was instead nurtured by the Right itself.

Number 15: "Your wages are planned...:Divisions of the wage scale must be arbitrary and rigid."

Mallory Factor, one of the RNC's biggest Wall Street fundraisers explained how cultural issues obfuscate what the GOP's wealthiest supporters--many being secular conservative-- are really after. In anticipating the 2005 battle over the Supreme Court nomination of John Roberts, he freely told New York magazine in July 2005, "I think we'll have a better opportunity with the Supreme Court stuff going on than we would have without it," he argues. "A lot of the energy of the bad guys is going to be all spent on the Supreme Court issue. I'm not minimizing the issue of the Court, but you watch: Other things are going to be happening, and nobody's going to be writing about it, except on page 17."

More telling was factor's description of the trade-off the secular Right makes with cultural warriors such as Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.):

Having the power to force someone like Santorum to kneel before them hints at the influence of the meeting. However, politics is a zero-sum game. Santorum and other senators like him will always care way more about abortion than the capital-gains tax. To Mallory and friends, a Santorum is preferable to a Democrat, but the danger is that every Santorum they help send to Washington increases the leverage of the GOP's social-conservative agenda at the expense of its economic one. Factor insists the Santorums of the world can do both. "If they work on the Christian-right issues, that's fine," he says. "We'll solely judge them on how they do on the economic issues."

Senator Santorum is quite active in the Catholic Right He is a key player in a movement that seeks to undo the progressive evolution of Catholic Social Teaching. There is a direct path from Pope Leo VIII's Rerum Novarum to Hilaire Belloc's distributism to The Bishop's Plan of 1919 ghost-written by Monsignor John A. Ryan and finally to the New Deal.

Both Monsignor Ryan and the Bishops moved beyond the traditional Catholic notions of "the servile state" and recognized the necessity of government to provide old-age retirement insurance--Social Security. Now certain more reactionary Catholics such as Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa) seek to gut this essential part of the safety net by a march backward through long discard church teachings. This pernicious mixture of religion, politics and economics leads directly to a new serfdom.

Number 16:  "Your thinking is 'planned'...: In the dictatorship unintentionally created by the planners, there is no room for difference of opinion. Posters, radio, press-- all tell you the same lies."

This has come to pass through the emergence of commentators such as Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, the previously mention Ann Coulter and of course, the aforementioned Rush Limbaugh. Similarly non-mainstream Right voices are given a forum in the Washington Times, founded by the Unification Church's Sun Myung Moon.

This gospel of mendacity now has now brazenly made its way into the studios of Disney-ABC. Previews of its upcoming mini-series The Path to 9/11 elicited outrage over its highly inaccurate portrayals of how former President Clinton was too distracted by the Monica Lewinsky affair to effectively focus on the emerging al-Qaeda threat. As Max Blumenthal described the film's producer, David Cunningham at Huffington

Cunningham is no ordinary Hollywood journeyman. He is in fact the son of Loren Cunningham, founder of the right-wing evangelical group Youth With A Mission (YWAM). The young Cunningham helped found an auxiliary of his father's group called The Film Institute (TFI), which, according to its mission statement, is "dedicated to a Godly transformation and revolution TO and THROUGH the Film and Television industry." As part of TFI's long-term strategy, Cunningham helped place interns from Youth With A Mission's in film industry jobs "so that they can begin to impact and transform Hollywood from the inside out," according to a YWAM report.

This revisionist history of the events leading to September 11, 2001 brings us back to the elevation of Hayek's "strongman." As blame is reportedly shifted from President Bush (purportedly ignoring the Bush administration's immediate shifting of priorities away from terrorism and to missile defense) and onto the President Clinton, we see the role of the Religious Right in it continued attempt to demonize liberal leadership. Their message is simple: President Bush will protect you, a liberal president will not.


Although Hayek was wrong in forecasting all planned economies as the harbingers of authoritarianism, he was correct when he stated:

"But when economic power is centralized as an instrument of political power it creates a degree of dependence scarcely distinguishable from slavery. It has been well said that, in a country where the sole employer is the state, opposition means death by slow starvation."

But Hayek did not foresee that in America a strongman--a Caesar--could be raised from those on the Right who now advocate a centralized authority of faith. They are religious leaders who concern themselves more with limiting individual expression than with the morality of the Golden Rule. They elevate illogical conformity while quelling dissent even among the religious faithful. Their pundits cull the most orthodox prohibitions of faith and combine them as if to create an unofficial state religion that worships blind obedience.

Our society is now perilously close to the tyrannical serfdom Hayek feared. America has been brought to this precipice with the help of a Religious Right working hand-in-hand with wealthy secular conservatives both of whom seem all too willing to render God unto a Caesar of their own making.

It is time for us to turn the Right's own words and actions against them. Their playing with the the fire of theocracy to maintain power not only threatens to lower the discourse, misrepresent Liberalism and erode our precious democracy, but  betrays their own philosophical heritage. Such hypocrisy needs to be pointed out.

As Fred Clarkson always reminds us, we must learn everything we can about our opponents. Knowledge is power.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Sep 09, 2006 at 08:15:45 PM EST

It is ironic that the Bush is promoting liberal democracy abroad (supposedly) while destroying it at home.

I was just reading about the influence of Strauss' philosopy on Neocons in the Administration and was surprised at how their goals align with the religious rights' towards destroying liberal democracy.

by RasSteve on Sun Sep 10, 2006 at 12:37:03 PM EST

Whereas more libertarian-minded conservatives (Reagan and Bush Sr.) alligned themselves with the Religious Right, they often would just throw them a bone (Scalia, Thomas), but not give them an actual seat at the table.

GWB, Rove and the administration neocons are different: they consult the Religious Right directly on many policy decisions. It is part ad parcel of the neocon philosophy that believes an authotitarian-minded religious orthodoxy is necessary for national cohesion.

About 10 years ago a rift appeared between the neocons and theocons such as George Weigel, Robert Bork and Michael Novak who actually lean more towards actual theocracy. I blame neocons such as David Brooks and the Irving and Bill Kristol (Ms. Himmelfarb too!) for not having the requisite foresight to see that that would be the next logical step in the evolution of their pernicious little philosophy.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Sep 10, 2006 at 01:12:23 PM EST


Thanks again for another thoughtful and informative post. This ties in well with your series on the Catholic right. I fear our country is headed for some significant problems.


by khughes1963 on Sun Sep 10, 2006 at 11:50:12 PM EST

Maybe we are heading for troubles, but we have a choice: Do we act as "onassers" who sit like a couch potatoes and simply complain or do we get off our asses and actually do things such as agitate and run for school boards or better yet, public office?

Kathy, I know that you and many other who come to this web site are not onassers. The trick is for us to challenge and bring on board those who are.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Sep 11, 2006 at 07:26:25 AM EST

One interesting link I've noticed is between the American Enterprise Institute and Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian "theocon" who is also an important figure within the Catholic group  Communion and Liberation. Buttiglione gave a talk at the AEI a couple of years ago, in which he explained how liberals in thrall to Marx and Derrida were determined to persecute anyone who believes in truth, particularly Roman Catholics and Jews. I wrote about it here.

by Richard Bartholomew on Mon Sep 11, 2006 at 03:04:37 AM EST
Thank you for the link; I may draw on it for a future CR posting. Funny that you bring up Comminion & Liberation. I have been planning to do a piece that incorporates the group's agenda and actions.

Keep in mind that Communion and Liberation is only one part of the Catholic Church; the dogmatic reactionaries. The good news is that a more progressive Catholic movement is really starting to coalesce to take on these bullies.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Sep 11, 2006 at 07:35:02 AM EST


There is a book about the influence of groups like Focolare, Communion & Liberation and the Neocatechumenate Way in the Catholic Church. It is Gordon Urquhart's book The Pope's Armada, published in 1999 by Prometheus Books. Gordon Urquhart is a former member of Focolare and was at one time an assistant of its leader, Chiara Lubich.

by khughes1963 on Mon Sep 11, 2006 at 09:42:03 AM EST

Good tip--I'll go to Albris and order the book.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Sep 11, 2006 at 12:04:46 PM EST

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