Sarah Palin, Corporate Capitalism, and Right Wing Nostalgia for the “Free Market” Nineteenth Century

Paul Street, Iowa City, IA, September 13, 2011.

Published at ZNet (Septembe 14, 2011)

Sarah Palin: “To Kill Corporate Capitalism” 

Comrades, what are we supposed to make of the fact that the fading presidential candidate and Tea Party celebrity Sarah Palin called for the death of corporate capitalism after a recent Tea Party event in Iowa? I’m not kidding. Read the following passage from New York Times political correspondent Jeff Zeleny’s report on Palin’s appearance in Indianola, Iowa two Saturdays ago:  

“Ms. Palin criticized career politicians. She did not mention any candidates by name, but her aides have quietly pushed back against the conventional wisdom that she was considering endorsing Gov. Rick Perry of Texas…In a brief exchange with reporters as she shook hands, signed autographs and posed for pictures…after her speech, she smiled and did not answer when asked if her comments were directed at Mr. Perry…’I  want all of our GOP candidates to take the opportunity to kill corporate capitalism that is leading to this cronyism that is killing our economy,’ Ms. Palin said. ‘They all have an opportunity to speak out against it.’” [1] 

The Associated Press (AP) and Wall Street Journal both reported the same quote. 

Market Populism

This might seem like bizarre and incongruous language from a rightist political personality who has built no small part of her preposterously outsized brand on the support of – and in service to – capitalist corporations. This is the same Sarah Palin who has for years tarred even the mildest forms of government intervention in the economy as signs of the great Marxist conspiracy. In the speech that preceded her call for the death of corporate capitalism, Ms. Palin called for an end to corporate income taxes!   

Has Sarah Palin gone over to the side of her hated leftists enemies? Has she lost her mind, however much of it there is to keep? Was she confused, stumbling over her own ignorance and poorly formulated words? 

The answer to each of these questions is certainly no. She has not become a leftist, of course. She did not call for workers’ control and the construction of a democratically planned economy that elevates the common good and social justice over private profit and the exploitation of the Many by the bourgeois Few. She did not advocate the mobilization of the working and lower classes to bring about these radical structural and moral changes from below. The target of her remark, it should be noted, was “corporate capitalism” and the corporate-government “cronyism” it breeds, not marketplace capitalism – the profits system that gave rise to the modern corporation – per se and the exploitation of people and environment that system entails. 

There was cynical political calculation behind Palin’s comment. As the AP noted, “The brief exchange [in Indianola] suggests Ms. Palin recognizes a window for a populist message amid grim monthly employment reports, especially since the two candidates ahead of her in national polls – Messrs. Perry and Romney – both have close ties to big business.” Palin is trying to take advantage of the facts that (a) millions of American voters are in a foul mood about big business and its friends in big government during a lingering recession and after massive public bailouts of mammoth financial and other corporations; (b) her leading GOP presidential rivals Rick Perry and Mitt Romney both have intimate and corrupt links to large corporate interests. 

Looking for votes and notoriety amid  the current angry citizen mood, Palin is tying in her own desperate way to exploit what the formerly left Christopher Hitchens once described as “the essence of American politics: This essence, when distilled,” Hitchens explained, “consists of the manipulation of populism by elitism….That elite is most successful,” Hitchens wrote in his 1999 study of the Bill Clinton presidency, “which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most  ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of public opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently ‘elitist.’”  It worked for corporate presidents Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bill Clinton in 1992, and Barack Obama in 2008. 

In her market version of this standard U.S. political game, Palin may be influenced by the conservative libertarian University of Chicago business professor Luigi Zingales. In her 2010 campaign book America by Heart. Palin’s ghost writer praised Zingales’ “crucial point that there is a difference between being pro-market and being pro-business. Both political parties are at fault in failing to acknowledge this distinction,” the writer added. 

Palin’s aides likely think Zingales’ distinction is a winner. Earlier this year, Zingales presented evidence in support of his argument that “the GOP’s strongest candidate” is “someone who favors free markets, but not big business.” He cited a December 2010 Chicago Booth/Kellogg School Trust Index poll (a poll Zingales helped craft) finding that 58 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “the free market is the best system to generate wealth” but also that 53 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “big business distorts the functioning of markets to its own advantage.”[2]

The conclusion drawn by Palin’s team is that America is ready for a president who combines hostility to the corporate sector with love for the “free market” that (as she would never understand or admit) gave rise to that sector. Like other Republicans, she projects herself as a champion of  small businesses, the supposed heroes of the free market, standing up for the family corner grocery store against those terrible “market-distorting” corporations  that are so politically unpopular even as they hold the keys to high political office. 

The Real Nineteenth Century v. the Free Market Myth 

The rhetoric is colored by fake-populist nostalgia for a mythical simpler national time. Like many white nationalists with a Tea Party flavor, Palin pines for a lost 19th Century[3] age of entrepreneurial capitalism, when owners managed their own businesses and knew their own workers and customers and when firms operated free of giant corporations and “big government.”  That’s when America was supposedly one big happy family, joined together beyond coercion and oppression by the glorious, supposedly free market. 

Historical reality was very different. The heyday of “free market” capitalism included such atrocious monuments to human exploitation and oppression as Manchester and Lowell, Massachusetts’ dark satanic textiles, the murderous exploitation of tens of thousands of Irish canal-diggers and Chinese railroad builders, the unspeakable crime of  mass black chattel cotton slavery followed by Jim Crow debt  peonage across the U.S. South, the concentrated misery of Chicago’s giant, quasi-military stockyards and packinghouses (later memorialized as Upton Sinclair’s “Jungle”), the continuing bloody governmental eradication of Native Americans to clear the land for white profit, the development of  powerful local, state, and federal strikebreaking militias, and the use of government relief programs and various criminal statutes to enforce bourgeois rule by compelling citizens to rely on the exploitative wages system (commonly understood and denounced by 19th Century Americans as “wage slavery”) for their existence. 

The brilliant radical American historian David Montgomery’s book Citizen Worker: The Experience of Workers in the United States With Democracy and the Free Market During the Nineteenth Century shows the dark authoritarian reality behind the mythologized “market freedom” of the pre-corporate era. As government become more formally democratic and voting rights were extended to property-less white males, Montgomery found, what government and politics could to actually shape daily material life and act on behalf of an increasingly proletarianized (ever more reduced to market/wage-dependency) populace became more restricted as the developing “free market” economy and its growing “hidden [and despotic –P.S] abodes of production” (Marx’s phrase) were insulated from democratic control. The voting rights and freedom of association enjoyed by workingmen quickened the collapse of older forms of personal, physical, and legal coercion – imprisonment for debt or for absconding from service to a master, slavery, and the post-Civil War Black Codes. But the older and “blatantly visible” forms of personal coercion were simply replaced with new modes of subordination cloaked as “free contracted arrangements” and “voluntary” commodity exchange.” Neither white nor black workers set the rules of the new “free market” society, which rested on a “new form of bondage.” Poor relief was removed from popular control to “reinforce industrial discipline” by ensuring that it functioned to keep working and lower class people dependent on wages. Montgomery found that “The law of master and servant, which found no place in the statutes adopted by elected legislatures in the free states, reappeared in court decisions and in commentaries on the common law, to provide legal sanction for employers’ authority.” Harsh vagrancy laws were passed and enforced to compel labor market discipline by closing off avenues to income outside work for wages. Large and increasingly specialized and expert police forces (with Red Squads tasked with crushing labor radicals) and militias were developed to smash rebellious workers’ strikes, protests, and (as after the Haymarket incident of 1886) organizations. The courts ruled against efforts by workers to collectively win and maintain decent wages, working, and living conditions and on behalf of employers’ right to set those conditions as they saw fit. “Over the course of the century,” Montgomery determined, “both the contraction of the domain of government activity and the strengthening of government’s coercive power contributed to the hegemony of business and professional men, which was exercised through both governmental and private actions.”[4] 

The advance of the “free market” in the 19th century came at the expense of democracy and took place with and through the expansion of the state’s coercive authority on behalf of oppressive business power. Contrary to the ignorant fantasies of Glenn Beck and his ilk – for whom the U.S. has been sliding into “totalitarian” government control ever since the Progressive Age[5] – it brought no popular utopia and little democracy. 

As the Marxist Canadian political scientist David McNally notes, “notwithstanding the force of economic coercion imposed by market dependence, capitalism has always required an intricate web of social, political, and legal coercion organized in and through the state.”[6] The largely pre-corporate and entrepreneurial capitalism of the 19th century was no exception. It relied on social and governmental coercion no less than its mercantilist predecessor and corporate-state successor. 

As Palin certainly does not know, moreover, the more entrepreneurial and proprietary capitalism of the early and middle 19th century gave rise to the concentrated corporate and financial managerial capitalism of the late 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries like adolescence gives rise to adulthood. The great corporate and financial conglomerations of the early 20th century were the natural outcomes and masters of the marketplace capitalism that was unleashed by the great bourgeois revolutions that produced the modern democratic era. They were the big fish that ate the smaller ones through a variety of means, including but hardly limited to crony-capitalist relationships with politicians and government (interested readers with time and energy for the minute details of U.S. business history can start with Alfred Chandler’s masterpiece The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business[7]). They arose largely through market mechanisms and incentives (to which they responded and which they mastered to no small degree) prior to the emergence of a powerful central government in the U.S. – a government that has been captive to the power of the giant corporations the “free market” and its partner the capitalist state did so much to produce ever since. Palin, Zingales, and other rightists can clam to hate big corporate business out of love for “the market” all they want but the former is very much the logical outcome, product and master of the latter. 

Not to Worry 

Palin’s rhetorical choices in Iowa won’t likely do her many favors with a corporate elite that distorts politics (selecting viable candidates for national office in advance through the hidden “wealth primary” of the ruling business class) and policy as well as markets. Her comment may well have garnered a nasty note from David Koch. It came at a time when the fake-libertarian Tea Party phenomenon’s proclaimed war on “big government” has alarmed and irritated many corporate elites. It’s one thing for corporate-sponsored right wing attack dogs like Palin and Beck to help big capital fight unions and keep unwanted financial and environmental regulations at bay. It’s another thing for those attack dogs to threaten government shutdowns and defaults, the closing off of cheap immigrant labor supplies, and an end to government bailouts (ever more essential and massive with the  progressively rising scale of  leading capitalist firms[8]) and corrupt deals for the corporate rich. As Noam Chomsky recently noted, the “free market” Teapublican “spectacle is even coming to frighten the sponsors of the charade. Corporate power is now concerned that the extremists they helped put in office in Congress may choose to bring down the edifice on which their own wealth and privilege relies, the powerful nanny state that caters to their interests.”[9]  

The problem is not unique to the age of Obama. In October of 2008, months before the rise of the Astroturf “Tea Party,” 2 of every 3 House Republicans voted against the Bush-Paulsen bailout of Wall Street in the name of the free market the first time through They voted differently the second time through, following a disastrous Dow Jones reaction and lectures from Wall Street on the limits of free market fundamentalism in a state-capitalist era. 

Still, big business has little to worry about from the likes of Sarah Palin. Her star has been fading for some time now and she now risks final eclipse in the 2012 presidential sweepstakes. To advocate the rule of “the market” today is to advocate the rule of the market’s longstanding master the corporation. Nobody on the right is going to take down the corporate welfare state or miraculously turn the clock of history back to a pre-corporate era of small-scale enterprises. Contrary to the standard Republican narrative claiming that small businesses (whom Republicans falsely claim to be protecting when they oppose taxes on and regulations of capital and the rich) are the nation’s great jobs engine, those businesses account for just 7 percent of total U.S employment, a much smaller share than in most rich nations. [10] 

The right’s real enemy, the authentic target of its ire, is the “left hand of the state” (Pierre Bourdieu)  – the parts of government that serve the common good and the working and lower class majority. The right hand of the state – the components of the public sector that serve the wealthy and corporate Few and punish and discipline that majority – is to remain well-fed and powerful as far as the right is concerned. Beneath deceptive, fake-populist rhetoric that trumpets “the free market” and its small business champions against big business, a president Palin could be counted on to wield government power in service to corporate power with no less enthusiasm than a president George W. Bush a president Barack Obama, a president Mitt Romney, or a president Rick Perry. 

Meanwhile, as is becoming clear with every new indication of the ecological death sentence the profits system is imposing on humans and other living things[11], a decent and democratic future depends on the concerted action to bring about, well, the death of corporate capitalism. To preserve the community welfare, we will have to replace the corporate state with a contemporary version of forward-looking alternatives many 19th European and U.S. workers, intellectuals, and activists  (including a number of martyrs and followers crushed by the consolidating coercive powers of the bourgeois state in the wake of the Haymarket bomb) envisioned and struggled for – a working peoples’ democracy that values and structures in the rule of the common good, social use-value, social equality, and popular participation over and against the commercial and egoistic values and parasitic profits of the wealthy Few.   

Thanks to Dan DiMaggio for alerting me to Palin’s comment and suggesting an essay on it.  

Paul Street ( and is the author of Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008, described by John Pilger in 2009 as “perhaps the only book that tells the truth about the 44th president of the United States”) and The Empire’s New Clothes:  Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010). Street’s sixth book, co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio, is Crashing the Tea Party Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO Paradigm. 2011). 


[1] J. Zeleny, “Palin Rails Against ‘Crony Capitalism’ and ‘Career Politicians,’” New York Times, September 3, 2011 at 

[2] City Journal, June 16, 2011 at There is a big problem with the statement that Zingales and his cohorts at the Chicago Booth/Kellogg School Trust Index asked their polling subjects to accept or reject: there is no such thing as a free market. As the Cambridge economist Ha Joon Chang recently noted in his bestselling book 12 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010): “The free market doesn’t exist. Every market has some rules and boundaries that restrict freedom of choice. A market looks free only because we so unconditionally accept its underlying restrictions that we fail to see them. How ‘free’ a market is cannot be objectively defined. It is a political definition. The usual claim by free-market economists that they are trying to defend the market from politically motivated interference by the government is false. Government is always involved and those free-marketers are as politically motivated as anyone. Overcoming the myth that there is such a thing as an objectively defined ‘free market’ is the first step towards understanding capitalism.” .

[3] I am admittedly giving many right wing Republicans too much credit here by assuming that they could specify their presumed Golden Age as rooted in the 19th century. Many of them are unclear on their centuries and tend to link their sense of the supposedly better and great “way things used to be” to their vague senses of   “the Founding Fathers” (not “free marketers” on the whole) the U.S. Constitution and the American Revolution. 

[4] David Montgomery, Citizen Worker: The Experience of Workers in the United States With Democracy and the Free Market During the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 5. 12. 

[5] See Sean Willentz’s instructive reflections: “Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party’s Cold War Roots,” The New Yorker, October 18, 2010. 

[6] David McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (PM Press, 2011), 116. 

[7]  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976. 

[8] McNally, Global Slump. 83. 

[9] Noam Chomsky, “America in Decline,” Truthout, August 5, 2011 at

[10] As Republican defector Mike Lofgren notes in a remarkable recent Truthout essay, “Another smokescreen [cloaking the fact that “The GOP cares solely and exclusively about its rich contributors”] is the ‘small business’ meme, since standing up for Mom’s and Pop’s corner store is politically more attractive than to be seen shilling for a megacorporation. Raising taxes on the wealthy will kill small business’ ability to hire; that is the GOP dirge every time Bernie Sanders or some Democrat offers an amendment to increase taxes on incomes above $1 million. But the number of small businesses that have a net annual income over a million dollars is de minimis, if not by definition impossible (as they would no longer be small businesses). And as data from the Center for Economic and Policy Research have shown, small businesses account for only 7.2 percent of total US employment, a significantly smaller share of total employment than in most Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.” Mike Lofgren, “Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult,” Truthout, September 3, 2011. 

[11] For my own version of some of the chilling (and warming) details and prospects, see Paul Street, “Biggest Issue in Our Time is the Biggest Loser in 2011 Budget,” ZNet (April 20, 2011) at

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By | 2011-09-14T10:26:51+00:00 September 14th, 2011|Articles|