Fascist Economics Don't Work
How to run a state into the ground while bragging about it.
The teachers are leaving Florida. Slowly, but it’s happening. A Tampa Bay Times investigation found that schools across the state’s university system are seeing five-year highs in staff departures. In interview after interview, professors across the state said that it is becoming harder for them to hire. They are getting fewer applications than they used to get for teaching positions, and fewer people are accepting job offers. The story’s most telling data point of all was this: “The African American studies department at [the University of Florida] made nine offers while trying to fill three positions. None accepted.”
The context, of course, is Ron Desantis ongoing crusade to demonstrate to the most ignorant and bigoted slice of parents that he is their champion. Solely for the purpose of positioning himself to run for President—a goal that is looking less plausible by the day—the oil-haired ex-jock has spent his time in office enacting an agenda of mandatory idiocracy in the nation’s third most populous state. It is fascism, no doubt about it, but it is important to set aside the fear it inspires for a moment and reflect upon how dumb the entire project is. Desantis is operating under the illusion that he is going to transform Florida into some sort of paradise for white families who will be able to drive enormous pickup trucks on pristine beaches and sip very heterosexual beers by the pool while their children all attend private schools and live happily, heterosexually ever after. A utopia for the sort of Americans who believe that prosperity is a direct result of allowing anyone who wears sunglasses perched on the brim of a baseball cap to do whatever they please. I do not want to play “spoiler” this early in what will surely be an illustrious career arc for Mr. Pudding Fingers, but his vision is not going to be realized. In fact, Desantis is going to find in time that his legacy will be a very public demonstration of the fact that the implementation of fascism does not lead to economic success. Quite the opposite.
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Desantis’ record on education resembles that of someone who was once insulted by a teacher and has been holding a grudge ever since. He has signed bills that weaken teachers unions, that attempt to outlaw honest teaching about race and gender and American history, and that undermine the existence of tenure and DEI programs on college campuses. He set his little fascist quislings loose on New College like rats given management duties in a restaurant kitchen, and he has proudly brought book banning back to the public schools. The unsurprising outcome of all of this is that fewer academics want to work in Florida’s universities, and Florida’s public schools are facing “the worst teacher and staff shortage we’ve ever seen,” with teacher vacancies doubling since Desantis took office. His response to engineering this decline of public education was to expand private school vouchers, which is kind of like burning down an apartment building and then offering people their choice of free apartments therein. If history is any guide, Florida’s future will bring worse K-12 schools, worse colleges and universities, angrier parents, teacher strikes, and a populace that is less educated. The classic ingredients of a thriving state!
Education is only one arena in which Desantis’ retrograde vision is going to clash with the reality of what makes a state successful. He has achieved his unitary goal of getting fawning right wing press by swinging his culture war hammer at Disney, starting a feud with the state’s most powerful private employer and sending one of the company’s planned billion-dollar investments scurrying back to California. As much as I like to see the government standing up to corporate power, Floridians should recognize that Desantis’ rationale—that Disney was not homophobic enough, as an institution—does not convey the sort of welcoming, modern atmosphere that most major companies look for when deciding where to locate. It sends the message that Florida is a state where business must bend the knee to the supreme leader and his salivating minions. This is completely in keeping with the preferences of fascist leaders everywhere. And it will fail.
Desantis took office in 2019. His entire political rise was enabled by riding the Trump wave. The majority of his time in office has been affected, above all, by the pandemic, and the subsequent flood of people into Florida. The governor interpreted this as an economic boom that came as a result of his own policies. Wrong, bitch. That influx was caused by a natural disaster. If anything, Desantis’ oafish Covid denial policies will be found to have held back the full economic potential of that event, by sickening and killing thousands of Floridians who otherwise would have been participating in the economy. The governor is behaving in a way recognizable to anyone who has seen an ignorant friend make some money on their first lucky investment: They conclude that they are geniuses, their egos swell, and they double down over and over again. The end is always a painful lesson.
In many ways, Desantis’ agenda is a familiar one. Southern states have been pursuing it for centuries. Its formula is: cheap labor, vicious oppression of disfavored classes, and the accrual of gains to a small white elite that treat the state as their own private deer hunting lodge, and fuck everyone else. The ability of generations of Southern governors to see this formula as successful even after it made them lose the Civil War to the industrialized North rests on the fact that it deposits most of its pain on the shoulders of black people, and white racists do not care how deplorable conditions get for their state’s black minority. They just don’t care. It doesn’t count to them. When they mentally filter out everything except “all this cheap labor sure makes my company a lot of money, and I send my kids to a nice private school,” it feels to them like all is well. The South is the most impoverished and unequal region of America, but if you don’t care about all the poor people, it seems like a fine way to run a state. Crush the unions to get wages down; crush the public schools, which make the population less ignorant and pliable; cut public spending to the bone to keep taxes low; make police and jails your sole social program; and then use your cheap, despondent work force as bait to attract bottom-feeding companies. Objectively, this system does not work, as can be easily seen from a ranking of average income by state. If you don’t care about average income, though, and are a bigot, and perhaps a religious fundamentalist, and only really care about how well you and your fellow deacons that you golf with are doing, it makes perfect sense. The most durable thing that 19th century plantation owners passed down to Southern politicians of today is this brand of thinking.
But even on its own terms, this approach will fail in Florida. The state is only half white, and that number will continue to fall with time. When you oppress the black people and also the non-Republican Latino people and also the LGBTQ people and also the liberals… well, pretty soon you find yourself oppressing a majority of the population. Witnessing Desantis’ recent hardline crackdown on immigration run squarely into the fact that immigrant labor underpins Florida’s entire agricultural sector, and much of its service economy, was a satisfying example of the failure of ideology in the face of material reality. All those farmers might be racist, but they damn sure are not prepared to pay $30 an hour to lure Americans to pick their crops. They’re not that racist. The childish fascist mind always imagines that the strongman leader can rally a vicious army to bend the world to his will, and that the people with money will come along for the ride. In isolated economies, this can come true as a matter of necessity. In a state of 22 million people that is a hub of global activity and that is competing with 49 other states with more to offer than beaches and pecan logs, it is a stupid fantasy.
Good economies are not created by making the largest possible part of your population scared and desperate and underpaid. They are created by good and widespread education; by skilled and well paid workers that feed their earnings back into other local businesses; by good health care and a strong social safety net that protects people from the sliding into full despair; and by taxes robust enough to fund all of this, and provide for good infrastructure and a functional state that can effectively respond to problems. In short, by creating a nice place to live, for everyone. Not by creating lavish mansions for a few people supported by a horde of hungry suffering wretches held at gunpoint. That’s not really the “business climate” that is conducive to growth. An excellent natural experiment to test these theses has been set up for us all to watch. In Minnesota, Democrats won a bare majority in the statehouse in the most recent elections, and proceeded to pass an agenda that is the equal and opposite of Desantis’ in Florida. They strengthened labor rights, protected abortion and trans health care, and supported public education and affordable housing. They pushed gun control legislation, just as Desantis made it legal to carry a concealed handgun with no license. The opposite governments of these two states are enacting two very different visions about what will make their states succeed. Over the next five or ten years, which do you think will prosper: The cold northern state will better education and stronger labor unions and better health care and gun control and equality, or the hot southern state without any of these things, but with orange win for sale at a number of roadside stands? I can’t wait to find out.
Sure, the neo-Confederate fascist mentality embodied by Desantis is morally deplorable. But that sort of criticism only encourages him. The thing that is more likely to bring this clod down is that his ideas don’t work. Fucking up your schools and attacking your unions and demonizing large swaths of your population do not lead to economic prosperity. The boom that Desantis depends on for his legitimacy will not be sustained on the back of such a program. He is actively making the state worse in a way that will hurt not just the people he doesn’t care about, but the people he does—the class of small business tyrants who depend upon constantly rising numbers of tourists and transplants to fund their boat purchases. Florida can seem like a very grim place right now. But I predict that when Desantis washes out of the presidential primary and is then term-limited out of the governor’s office in a few years, much of his specific brand of hate will disappear with him. It is ultimately rooted not in the cold, calculating logic of capitalism, but in his own fucked up personality. He’s a mean little man. We know that his is not the path to greatness. Florida is just going to have to find out the hard way.
I have for months been nursing a desire to write a story about Florida teachers unions in the age of Desantis. If you are active in teachers union work down there, I’d like to be in touch with you: Hamilton.Nolan@gmail.com.
How Things Work is a publication that began with a dream: How can I, a humble independent journalist, build a platform strong enough to allow me to scream in Ron Desantis’ face until he gets so bothered that he sputters and his face turns all red and steam comes out of his ears like a cartoon? And also, I’d like to write incisive essays about politics and labor issues? Well, here I am living the dream, thanks to the generosity and wisdom of my paying subscribers, who make it all possible. If you enjoy this stuff, please consider becoming a paid subscriber yourself—fascists HATE independent media, and, in particular, this publication. Thank you.