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Know the Enemy: The Koch Brothers (BOOK REVIEW)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) November 20, 2014: Americans generally look on the American Revolution positively. For understandable reasons, Americans do not look on the French Revolution as positively. I do not want to dwell here on the reasons why not.

Instead, I want to call attention to one admittedly small point: As Mortimer J. Adler pointed out years ago, the French Revolution involved a call for fraternity that was not part of the call to action for the American Revolution.

Today the American political scene includes the Tea Party. The Tea Party appears to be based on a call for liberty, but not a call for fraternity. Indeed, in the name of liberty, the libertarian Tea Party appears to be strongly opposed to the spirit of fraternity. But pushed to the ultimate degree possible, no spirit of fraternity would mean no Tea Party -- and no political parties at all and theoretically no government at all, just the libertarian spirit of individualism.

There is a big difference between Emersonian self-reliance, on the one hand, and, on the other, selfish disregard of others. As John Donne long ago said, no man is an island. I know, I know, rich and successful libertarians tend to get together with one another in the Tea Party and the Republican Party. This tendency shows that they are not islands after all. Thus there is a limit to their individualism. Moreover, they understand that they need to band together with like-minded people to fight for what they refer to as limited government -- and to fight against what they deem to be collectivist in spirit. Thus in the final analysis, their targeted anti-government fervor is not exactly anarchist -- they do not want to do away with all government. Instead, they want a limited government -- limited of course to favor the rich and successful. In general, they might expect the rich and successful to give to charities to help support the poor and needy. Private charity to help the poor and needy may sound appealing and perhaps even noble to libertarians, but it could never make much of difference. But they oppose having so-called "big government" doing anything to help the poor and needy, because they claim that such government help would be collectivist in spirit. In short, they prefer the Darwinian spirit of survival of the fittest, unregulated capitalism in an ideally free marketplace, and the hidden hand that supposedly guides the ideally free marketplace -- their version of divine providence. As the reference to divine province suggests, this libertarian set of ideas represents for libertarians a kind of religious faith -- their kind of theology. As a result of their libertarian theology, libertarians are theocons, even though the libertarian theocons may have a somewhat different set of priorities than the Roman Catholic theocons that Damon Linker discusses in his book THE THEOCONS: SECULAR AMERICA UNDER SIEGE (2006) have. So on the right, we have both libertarian theocons and Roman Catholic theocons -- and perhaps other theocons.

Incidentally, Pope Francis, a misogynist if ever there was one, has criticized global capitalism -- in doing this, he sounds like the ancient Hebrew prophet Amos. But American Catholic theocons have not exactly welcomed the pope's criticisms of capitalism. So at least with respect to capitalism, perhaps their theology is not all that different from the libertarian theology. Disclosure: In theory, I am not opposed to capitalism, provided that it is carefully and responsibly regulated.

In contrast to the libertarian spirit of selfish individualism, progressives and liberals tend not to be opposed to the spirit of fraternity, as libertarians typically are. But do progressive and liberals on the left also tend to be theocons? If they do, what is the set of ideas that make up the progressive and liberal theology -- faith in so-called "big government"?

Now, for years, the Koch brothers, Charles and David, have been using their vast wealth to promote various libertarian causes, including the libertarian Tea Party. For understandable reasons, progressives and liberals should consider the Koch brothers to be the enemy of progressive and liberal politics. For they represent the libertarian view that can be found not only in the Tea Party movement -- but also in Mitt Romney's quip about makers and takers. In general, the wealthy Koch brothers are the enemies of progressives and liberals.

So in the spirit of knowing the enemy, progressives and liberals should consider reading Daniel Schulman's informative book SONS OF WICHITA: HOW THE KOCH BROTHERS BECAME AMERICA'S MOST POWERFUL AND PRIVATE DYNASTY (2014). Schulman is a senior editor in the Washington bureau of the magazine MOTHER JONES. This is his first book. His readable book is informative and enlightening. Indeed, it is a much-needed service to the country. This is an important book for progressives and liberals to read.

As Schulman explains, Fred Koch and his wife had four sons: Frederick, Charles, and the fraternal twins, David and Bill. Fred Koch went to MIT, as did the three younger Koch brothers. When Fred Koch's health was beginning to fail, he insisted on having Charles work for his already successful company and then groomed him to take over the company eventually after his death. After the father's death, Charles did indeed take over running his family's business. However, after a bitter legal feud, Charles and David emerged as the leaders and owners of the family business, which has become known as Koch Industries. Schulman details the bitter legal feud between the brothers than spanned two decades.

As Schulman explains, the strong libertarian views held and advanced by Charles Koch and David Koch are rooted in and grow out of their father's strong anti-communist views. However, their father's anti-communist views tended to be more than a little paranoid. By contrast, the libertarian views of Charles Koch and David Koch are only mildly paranoid, as are the views of other libertarians in the Tea Party and of most white conservatives in the Republican Party.

Fred Koch's strong anti-communist views were rooted in and grow out of his company's experience in doing business with Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, which took Fred Koch to the Soviet Union. Ironically, his company's lucrative contract with the Soviet Union was the basis of his early financial success. But he did not like what he saw and heard in the Soviet Union. In addition, he felt guilty for the role his company had played in helping the Soviet Union.

Fred Koch's anti-communist view inspired him to fear communist infiltration in the American government and, more generally, in American culture. As a result of his strong anti-communist view, he was outspoken about anything he perceived as collectivist in spirit. The young and impressionable Koch brothers grew up listening to their father's rants about anything he perceived as collectivist in spirit.

So this is the family background of the strong libertarian views that Charles Koch and David Koch hold tend to be opposed to anything that they deem to be collectivist in spirit. According to Schulman, Charles Koch's libertarian fervor for promoting and financially supporting various libertarian causes was at its height in the 1970s (page 228).

But Charles Koch's libertarian and anti-government views also influenced the way he ran Koch Industries. Schulman says, "In many ways, the company was an extension of Charles, a reflection of his values, beliefs, and persona. His humble, taciturn style was its humble, taciturn style. His rigid free-market philosophy was its rigid free-market philosophy. If the company had taken an antagonistic view toward government regulation, it had flowed from him" (page 228).

But in the 1990s, Koch Industries suffered certain major legal setbacks. Clearly Koch Industries was going to have to undertake a major overhaul of its views and approaches -- and that's exactly what the company did under the direction of Charles Koch. Schulman says, "By the spring of 2001, a new era was dawning for Koch Industries" (page 230).

In this dawning new era, Koch Industries went on to experience unprecedented expansion and growth. Schulman says, "Between 1960 and 2006, the company's revenues increased from $70 million to $90 billion" (page 243; his emphasis). Due to Charles Koch's cut-throat competitiveness, he knows how to turn a profit for his company.

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell
Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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