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Posts Tagged ‘plutocracy

“A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implications lie in its power of debasing people and ideals.”*…

Detail from Jasper Johns ‘White Flag”

In 2018, Lewis Lapham wrote a foreword for the re-issue of his 1988 book, Money and Class in America

… The dream of riches has been the hallmark of the American experience ever since the first settlements in the 17th-century wilderness were set up as joint ventures backed by Divine Providence and British gold. Among the gentlemen adventurers offloading Dutch cannon and Geneva bibles on the shores of Massachusetts Bay, there were those who had come in search of El Dorado, betting their lives and fortunes if not their sacred honor on rumors of precious metal and grade-A beaver pelt. Others arriving with blueprints for a new Jerusalem were content to lay up stores of virtue awaiting heavenly reward after the long, New England winter in the grave. No congregation was at a loss for a sermon, a real estate deal, or a discussion about the nature of their newfound wealth—wages of sin or sign of grace, proof of the good Lord’s infinite wisdom or the result of a sharp bargain with a drunken Pequot Indian.

The framers of the Constitution, prosperous and well-educated gentlemen assembled in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, shared with John Adams the suspicion that “democracy will infallibly destroy all civilization,” agreed with James Madison that the turbulent passions of the common man lead to “reckless agitation” for the abolition of debts and “other wicked projects.” With Plato the framers shared the assumption that the best government incorporates the means by which a privileged few arrange the distribution of property and law for the less fortunate many. They envisioned an enlightened oligarchy to which they gave the name of a republic. Adams thought “the great functions of state” should be reserved for “the rich, the well-born, and the able,” the new republic to be managed by men to whom Madison attributed “most wisdom to discern and most virtue to pursue the common good of the society.”

The words for their enterprise the framers borrowed from the British philosopher John Locke, who had declared his 17th-century willingness “to join in society with others who are already united or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates, which I call by the general name property.” Locke could not conceive of freedom established on anything other than property. Neither could the 18th-century framers of America’s Constitution. By the word liberty, they meant liberty for property, not liberty for persons.

But unlike our present-day makers of money and law, the founders were not stupefied plutocrats. They knew how to read and write (in Latin or French if not also in Greek) and they weren’t preoccupied with the love and fear of money. From their reading of history they understood that oligarchy was well-advised to furnish democracy with some measure of political power because the failure to do so was apt to lead to their being roasted on pitchforks. Accepting of the fact that whereas democracy puts a premium on equality, a capitalist economy does not, the founders looked to balance the divergent ways and means, to accommodate both motions of the heart and the movement of a market. They conceived the Constitution as both organism and mechanism and offered as warranty for its worth the character of men presumably relieved of the necessity to cheat and steal and lie.

The presumption in 1787 could be taken at fair and face value. The framers were endowed with the intellectual energy of the 18th-century Enlightenment, armed with the moral force of the Christian religion. Their idea of law they held to be sacred, a marriage of faith and reason. But good intentions are a perishable commodity, and even the best of oligarchies bear comparison to cheese. Sooner or later they turn rancid in the sun. Wealth accumulates, men decay; a band of brothers that once aspired to form a wise and just government acquires the character of what Aristotle likened to that of “the prosperous fool,” a class of men insatiable in their appetite for more—more banquets, more laurel wreaths and naval victories, more temples, dancing girls and portrait busts—so intoxicated by the love of money “they therefore imagine there is nothing it cannot buy.”

The divisions of race and class were present at the American creation. The planting of colonies in 17th-century America conformed to medieval Europe’s feudal arrangements of privilege and subordination. The aristocratic promoters of the project received land as a gift from the English king; the improvement of the property required immigrants (God-fearing or fortune-seeking) skilled as fishermen, farmers, saltmakers and mechanics. Their numbers were unequal to the tasks at hand, and in both the plantation south and merchant north the developers imported enslaved Africans as well as what were known as “waste people” dredged from the slums of Jacobean England—vagrants, convicts, thieves, bankrupts, strumpets, vagabonds, lunatics and bawds obliged to pay their passage across the Atlantic with terms of indentured labor on its western shore. The prosperous gentry already settled on that shore regarded the shipments of “human filth” as night soil drained from Old World sewers to fertilize New World fields and forests. By the time the colonies declared their independence from the British crown, the newborn American body politic had been sectioned, like the carcass of a butchered cow, into pounds and pence of prime and sub-prime flesh.

All men were maybe equal in the eye of God, but not in the pews in Boston’s Old North Church, in the streets of Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia, in the fields at Jefferson’s Monticello. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination divided the Massachusetts flock of Christian sheep into damned and saved; Cotton Mather in 1696 reminded the servants in his midst, “You are the animate, separate passive instruments of other men . . . your tongues, your hands, your feet, are your masters’s and they should move according to the will of your masters.” Franklin, enlightened businessman and founder of libraries, looked upon the Philadelphia rabble as coarse material that maybe could be brushed and combed into an acceptable grade of bourgeois broadcloth. His Poor Richard’s Almanac offered a program for turning sow’s ears if not into silk purses, then into useful tradesmen furnished with a “happy mediocrity.” For poor white children in Virginia, Jefferson proposed a scheme he described as “raking from the rubbish” the scraps of intellect and talent worth the trouble of further cultivation. A few young illiterates who showed promise as students were allowed to proceed beyond the elementary grades; the majority were released into a wilderness of ignorance and poverty, dispersed over time into the westward moving breeds of an American underclass variously denominated as “mudsill,” “hillbilly,” “cracker,” “Okie,” “redneck,” Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables.”

Nor at any moment in its history has America declared a lasting peace between the haves and have-nots. Temporary cessations of hostilities, but no permanent closing of the moral and social frontier between debtor and creditor. The notion of a classless society derives its credibility from the relatively few periods in the life of the nation during which circumstances encouraged social readjustment and experiment—in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, again in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s—but for the most part the record will show the game securely rigged in favor of the rich, no matter how selfish or stupid, at the expense of the poor, no matter how innovative or entrepreneurial. During the last 30 years of the 19th century and the first 30 years of the 20th, class conflict furnished the newspaper mills with their best-selling headlines—railroad company thugs quelling labor unrest in the industrial East, the Ku Klux Klan lynching Negroes in the rural South, the U.S. army exterminating Sioux Indians on the Western plains.

Around the turn of the 20th century the forces of democracy pushed forward an era of progressive reform sponsored by both the Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson. During the middle years of the 20th century America at times showed some semblance of the republic envisioned by its 18th-century founders—Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a citizen army fighting World War II, the Great Depression replaced with a fully employed economy in which all present shared in the profits.

The civil rights and anti-Vietnam war protests in the 1960s were expressions of democratic objection and dissent intended to reform the country’s political thought and practice, not to overthrow its government. Nobody was threatening to reset the game clock in the Rose Bowl, tear down Grand Central Terminal or remove the Lincoln Memorial. The men, women and children confronting racist tyranny in the South—sitting at a lunch counter in Alabama, riding a bus into Mississippi, going to school in Arkansas—risked their lives and sacred honor on behalf of a principle, not a lifestyle; for a government of laws, not men. The unarmed rebellion led to the enactment in the mid-1960s of the Economic Opportunity Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Medicare and Medicaid programs, eventually to the shutting down of the Vietnam War.

Faith in democracy survived the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963; it didn’t survive the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in 1968. The 1960s and 1970s gave rise to a sequence of ferocious and destabilizing change—social, cultural, technological, sexual, economic and demographic—that tore up the roots of family, community and church from which a democratic society draws meaning and strength. The news media promoted the multiple wounds to the body politic (the murders of King and Kennedy, big-city race riots, the killing of college students at Kent State and Jackson State, crime in the streets of Los Angeles, Chicago and Newark) as revolution along the line of Robespierre’s reign of terror. The fantasy of armed revolt sold papers, boosted ratings, stimulated the demand for heavy surveillance and repressive law enforcement that over the last 50 years has blossomed into the richest and most innovative of the nation’s growth industries.

By the end of the 1970s democracy had come to be seen as a means of government gone soft in the head and weak in the knees, no match for unscrupulous Russians, incapable of securing domestic law and order, unable to disperse the barbarians (foreign and native born) at the gates of the gated real estate in Beverly Hills, Westchester County and Palm Beach. The various liberation movements still in progress no longer sought to right the wrongs of government. The political was personal, the personal political. Seized by the appetite for more—more entitlements, privileges and portrait busts—plaintiffs for both the haves and the have-nots agitated for a lifestyle, not a principle. The only constitutional value still on the table was the one constituting freedom as property, property as freedom. A fearful bourgeois society adrift in a sea of troubles was clinging to its love of money as if to the last lifeboat rowing away from the Titanic when Ronald Reagan in 1980 stepped onto the stage of the self-pitying national melodrama with the promise of an America to become great again in a future made of gold.

In 2018, the few optimistic voices at the higher elevations of informed American opinion regard the advent of Trump as a blessing in disguise, one that places the society in sufficiently dire straits to prompt the finding of a phoenix in the ashes, the best chance in two generations to resurrect America’s democratic life force. I like to think the same thought, but I rate the odds of rescue at 6-1 against…

On our nation’s birthday, bracing reading: “Of America and the Rise of the Stupefied Plutocrat.” Eminently worthy of reading in full.

And for an apposite (albeit curiously complacent) take from 1925, Sherwood Anderson‘s thought on the U.S. at the 150-year mark: “Hello, Big Boy.”

* Edith Wharton

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As we make birthday wishes, we might recall that on this date in 1862, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a young Oxford mathematics don, took the daughters of the Dean of Christ Church College– Alice Liddell and her sisters– on a boating picnic on the River Thames in Oxford.  To amuse the children he told them the story of a little girl, bored by a riverbank, whose adventure begins when she tumbles down a rabbit hole into a topsy-turvy world called “Wonderland.”  The story so captivated the 10-year-old Alice that she begged him to write it down.  The result was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865 under the pen name “Lewis Carroll,” with illustrations by John Tenniel.

Readers in or around Oxford can join the celebration.

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“Note, to-day, an instructive, curious spectacle and conflict”*…

States within the global political economy today face a twin insurgency, one from below, another from above. From below comes a series of interconnected criminal insurgencies in which the global disenfranchised resist, coopt, and route around states as they seek ways to empower and enrich themselves in the shadows of the global economy. Drug cartels, human traffickers, computer hackers, counterfeiters, arms dealers, and others exploit the loopholes, exceptions, and failures of governance institutions to build global commercial empires. These empires then deploy their resources to corrupt, coopt, or challenge incumbent political actors.

From above comes the plutocratic insurgency, in which globalized elites seek to disengage from traditional national obligations and responsibilities. From libertarian activists to tax-haven lawyers to currency speculators to mineral-extraction magnates, the new global super-rich and their hired help are waging a broad-based campaign to limit the reach and capacity of government tax-collectors and regulators, or to manipulate these functions as a tool in their own cut-throat business competition.

Unlike classic 20th-century insurgents, who sought control over the state apparatus in order to implement social reforms, criminal and plutocratic insurgents do not seek to take over the state. Nor do they wish to destroy the state, since they rely parasitically on it to provide the legacy goods of social welfare: health, education, infrastructure, and so on. Rather, their aim is simpler: to carve out de facto zones of autonomy for themselves by crippling the state’s ability to constrain their freedom of (economic) action…

From Nils Gilman (@nils_gilman), a sadly prophetic 2014 piece– the postmodern state is under siege from plutocrats and criminals who compound each other’s insidiousness: “The Twin Insurgency.”

For a more current– but altogether resonant– take (one that arrives at a similar conclusion from a different point of origin), see Harvard Law School professor and Berkman Center co-director Yochai Benkler‘s “The Real Reason the GOP Suppresses the Vote.

(This is being written the day before the election; sadly, the issues raised here will be with us regardless of the outcome…)

* Walt Whitman

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As we watch our flanks, we might recall that it was on this date in 1970 that Salvador Allende took office after being elected President of Chile. He was deposed in a military coup, actively supported by the U.S. CIA, in 1973.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 4, 2020 at 1:01 am

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