Servants of Wealth: The Right's Assault on Economic Justice, by John Ehrenberg

Reviewed by
Anthony Squiers

My students often question me about the current state of American politics and society. Being located in a plainly proletarian city, they aren’t so much asking for an empirical account of the conditions they are already observing for themselves. Instead , they want me to explain how the ‘greatest country in the world’ could find itself encumbered with the grim realities facing it today. From Bush’s abortion of a war, to crime, poverty and inequality, they demand an explanation of how these things could happen. Of course, I try to give them an answer and encourage them to find their own; but, our attempts often emerge disjointed and partial. John Ehrenberg’s book Servants of Wealth, on the other hand presents a comprehensive and cogent analysis of the current state of America that explores the ideological, economic, social and political rise of what Ehrenberg calls the Modern Right’s “aggressive use of state power to advance the interests of the rich.”[i]  What Ehrenberg has done in his book is to put forth one of the most clearly and concisely articulated accounts of neo-conservative ideology and the brutal impact it has had on American society.

Using a sharp analysis of the years preceding the Reagan Revolution as his foundation, Ehrenberg argues that a combination of social and economic factors created a climate that was ripe for opportunistic conservatives to dramatically shift the ideological discourse in America away from that of New Deal Liberalism.

Included in this ideological shift was the emphasis the New Right put on the military. Ehrenberg identifies the major players in the neo-con’s concerted effort to make their obsession with militarism a policy reality. From The Committee on the Present Danger to The Project for the New American Century, Ehrenberg explains how the New Right successfully used fear tactics and terror to craft a more aggressive foreign policy. In his words, “[T]he developing neo-conservative argument hinged on convincing the population that the United States was facing a mortal threat…and that fundamental changes in American foreign and defense policy were needed.”[ii] This in turn meant increased defense spending which the New Right was more than willing to sacrifice social programs to pay for. According to Ehrenberg, “[T]he neo-conservatives set about convincing the population that security from external threats was worth the price.”[iii]

But, the New Right couldn’t stop at increased militarism and a more aggressive foreign policy, according to Ehrenberg. For this to be successful, they argued, a much more cohesive domestic situation needed to emerge and that meant an immediate end to the “[i]ncreased participation by blacks, young people, workers, and women [that] carried with it an important reassertion of egalitarian and redistributionist social policies,”[iv] These ‘social disruptions’ were a major source of competition over the resources the Right desperately needed to fund their aggressive foreign policy. Furthermore, the demands more participation created was perceived as a threat to the stability of the state. As Ehrenberg puts it, “Higher levels of participation and more democratic movements had simultaneously demanded more government activity and had limited its authority.”[v] Theorists like Samuel Huntington and Allen Bloom argued that the 1960s and 70s had witnessed an “erosion of state legitimacy and governmental authority,”[vi] that threatened the stability of the country. These arguments were buttressed by the red-faced, hellfire preachings of Jerry Falwell and the establishment of his Moral Majority that derided all the accomplishments of the progressive movement as being un-godly and instead demanded an austere state authority to subdue the influence of what they considered “crazed feminists, criminal blacks, and a weak-willed and corrupt liberal elite.”[vii]

Another key focal point of Ehrenberg’s analysis of the New Right is their position on racial issues, in particular the position of African Americans in society. As a corollary to the redistributive and socially inclusive traditions of the New Deal, the Civil Rights movement made great strides in redressing the iniquities of racial discrimination and Jim Crow. Things like the 1964 Voting Right’s Act, Civil Rights Act, and Affirmative Action were all substantial steps in rectifying black marginalization. However, as Ehrenberg points out, Neo-conservatives have methodically worn away at this progress and the just reasoning behind it. In its place they have popularized a sinister and reactionary set of ideas that had historically been reserved for plantation masters and Klansmen. What the Right did was deny the historic, structural constraints blacks face in society and assigned blame for racial inequality on what they considered the cultural inferiority of African Americans. In Ehrenberg words, the New Right crafted and perpetuated, “[a] popular narrative [that] suggested…blacks systematically undermined the normal rules of social progress through acts of individual and collective violence, public expressions of contempt for middle-class morality, and excessive demands on others. [The New Right] fed a racial discourse that began to blame an allegedly self-destructive and irresponsible population for its own failure to advance.”[viii]

Questioning the benign nature of the welfare state was another tool the Neo-cons used in their campaign to destroy the New Deal social model, according to Ehrenberg. Fueled by the theoretical assertions of anti-socialists and supply-siders like Friedrich Hayek, and Milton and Rose Friedman a whole generation of politicians including Newt Gingrich and especially Ronald Reagan set about convincing the American public that New Deal Liberalism was antithetical to both freedom and prosperity and that is was actually the cause of society’s problems not an answer to it. Furthermore, they made the perverse assertion to the advantaged classes in society that they had been falling victim to a society gone awry. As Ehrenberg states, “Even though the United States provides less social welfare and taxes its citizens less than comparable societies, the Right feeds the myth of an overtaxed population…Even though the United States is marked by higher levels of economic and social inequality than comparable societies and does less in its tax and transfer policy to mitigate the effects of both, the Right feeds the myth of an extortionist state that takes money from the industrious and gives it to the lazy.”[ix]

The final step in solidifying the Right’s ideology as the new American discourse, according to Ehrenberg, was to undermine the core principle around which much of New Deal Liberalism was based; i.e., that inequality is bad. As Ehrenberg explains, “The contemporary Right…crafted a series of arguments that explains how policies that benefit a tiny minority of the population aren’t really what they seem. It has learned to appeal to a country that still adheres to a broadly democratic ethos by arguing that equality applies to opportunity alone, that economic differences are accurate reflections of contributions to the general welfare, and that making the rich even richer will benefit everyone.”[x] In essence what the Neo-cons did was to convince an unsuspecting population that everyone benefits from the unfettered economic activity and that “[t]ampering with the market will destroy democracy.”[xi]

Servants of Wealth is a beautifully crafted analysis and critique of neo-conservative ideology for which Ehrenberg should be lauded. He highlights the wide spectrum of issues that collectively define the core of his subject. Furthermore, he paints a vivid and frightening portrait of the impact Neo-Conservatism has had on the disadvantaged classes of society. His assurance that, “[t]he Right’s twenty-five-year campaign to reward wealth and property has come at an enormous price for the “common” people in whose welfare it has long claimed to be interested,”[xii] is a pithy indication of the keen insight that makes this book a worthy contribution to the literature.

However, Ehrenberg may be off the mark in his assumption that New Deal Liberalism is dramatically different in nature than Neo-conservatism. Granted, the New Right plays a bit nastier but in the end it is still the same game. Call it what you will: elitist, bourgeois or plutocratic, the top strata in society continues to play for keeps and they still play on an unleveled field. The difference is that through New Deal Liberalism, FDR had enough sense or foresight to force the upper strata to throw the marginalized classes concessions once in a while to keep them appeased. The New Right’s approach is to turn the screws a little tighter to bring the under-classes into submission. But in the end, we have the same result—the reality of permanently disadvantaged classes struggling to survive in society. Indeed, my reading of FDR and New Deal Liberalism is a bit more cynical. Whereas he views FDR as the champion of the under-classes, I see him more as the champion of the Capital class. After all, the essence of what FDR did was to ensure the stability of the capitalist system from the chaos and discontentment that was threatening to explode in Socialist revolution as a result of the depression. And it worked; FDR compelled the advantaged class to start giving a little back but only in an effort to help them keep the lion’s share. Normatively Ehrenberg is justified in claiming that this is a preferred condition; but, it falls well short of anything we could or even should consider economic justice. Therefore, by asserting that the Right had somehow assaulted economic justice, as I read him, Ehrenberg ironically may only have reinforced the bourgeois fallacy that it once existed.



[i] Ehrenberg, John. Servants of Wealth: The Right’s Assault on Economic Justice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006. p. 15.

[ii] Ibid., p. 23.

[iii] Ibid., p. 19.

[iv] Ibid., p. 51.

[v] Ibid., p. 51.

[vi] Ibid., p. 51.

[vii] Ibid., p. 68.

[viii] Ibid., p. 74.

[ix] Ibid., pp. 112-113.

[x] Ibid., pp. 142-143.

[xi] Ibid., p. 159.

[xii] Ibid., p. 168.