By Chris Hedges
Our oligarchic class is incompetent at governing, managing the economy, coping with natural disasters, educating our young, handling foreign affairs, providing basic services like health care and safeguarding individual rights. That it is still in power, and will remain in power after this election, is a testament to our inability to separate illusion from reality. We still believe in “the experts.” They still believe in themselves. They are clustered like flies swarming around John McCain and Barack Obama. It is only when these elites are exposed as incompetent parasites and dethroned that we will have any hope of restoring social, economic and political order.
“Their inability to see the human as anything more than interest driven made it impossible for them to imagine an actively organized pool of disinterest called the public good,” said the Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul, whose books “The Unconscious Civilization” and “Voltaire’s Bastards” excoriates our oligarchic elites. “It is as if the Industrial Revolution had caused a severe mental trauma, one that still reaches out and extinguishes the memory of certain people. For them, modern history begins from a big explosion—the Industrial Revolution. This is a standard ideological approach: a star crosses the sky, a meteor explodes, and history begins anew.”
Our elites—the ones in Congress, the ones on Wall Street and the ones being produced at prestigious universities and business schools—do not have the capacity to fix our financial mess. Indeed, they will make it worse. They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of the common good. They are stunted, timid and uncreative bureaucrats who are trained to carry out systems management. They see only piecemeal solutions which will satisfy the corporate structure. They are about numbers, profits and personal advancement. They are as able to deny gravely ill people medical coverage to increase company profits as they are able to use taxpayer dollars to peddle costly weapons systems to blood-soaked dictatorships. The human consequences never figure into their balance sheets. The democratic system, they think, is a secondary product of the free market. And they slavishly serve the market.
Andrew Lahde, the Santa Monica, Calif., hedge fund manager who made an 870 percent gain last year by betting on the subprime mortgage collapse, has abruptly shut down his fund, citing the risk of trading with faltering banks. In his farewell letter to his investors he excoriated the elites who run our investment houses, banks and government.
“The low-hanging fruit, i.e. idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA, was there for the taking,” he said of our oligarchic class. “These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received (or supposedly received) rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government. All of this behavior supporting the Aristocracy only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God bless America.”
“On the issue of the U.S. Government, I would like to make a modest proposal,” he went on. “First, I point out the obvious flaws, whereby legislation was repeatedly brought forth to Congress over the past eight years, which would have [reined] in the predatory lending practices of now mostly defunct institutions. These institutions regularly filled the coffers of both parties in return for voting down all of this legislation designed to protect the common citizen. This is an outrage, yet no one seems to know or care about it. Since Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith passed, I would argue that there has been a dearth of worthy philosophers in this country, at least ones focused on improving government.”
Democracy is not an outgrowth of free markets. Democracy and capitalism are antagonistic entities. Democracy, like individualism, is not based on personal gain but on self-sacrifice. A functioning democracy must defy the economic interests of elites on behalf of citizens. This is not happening. The corporate managers and government officials trying to fix the economic meltdown are pouring money and resources into the financial sector because they only know how to manage and sustain established systems, not change them. Financial systems, however, are not pure scientific and numerical abstractions that exist independently from human beings.
“When the elite begin to think that money is real, the crash is coming,” Saul said in a telephone interview. “That is just a given in history. Because what they’ve done is pull themselves out of the possibility of looking in the mirror and thinking, this is inflation, speculation, this is fluff. They can’t do it. And when you say to them, gosh, this is not real. And they say, oh, you don’t understand, you’re so old-fashioned, you still think this is about manufacturing. And of course, it’s basic economics. And that’s what happens every single time.
“The difficulty is you have a collapse, you have a loss of face by the people who are there, and it’s not just George Bush, it’s very, very deep,” Saul said. “What we’re talking about is the need to rethink the departments of economics, of political science. Then you have to rethink the whole analytic method of the World Bank. If I’m the secretary of the treasury, and not a guy like [Henry] Paulson, but I mean a sort of normal secretary of the treasury or minister of finance, and I say, OK, we’ve got a real problem, let’s get the senior civil servants in here. Gentlemen, ladies, OK, clearly we have to go in another direction, give me some ideas. Well, those people don’t have any other ideas because at this point they’re about the fourth generation of what you might call neoconservative globalist managers, unfairly summarized. So they then go to the people who work for them, and you work down; there’s no one in there with an alternate approach. I mean they’ll have little alternatives, but no basic differences in opinion. And so it’s very difficult to turn anything around because they’ve eliminated all opposing ideas inside. I mean it’s the problem of the Soviet Union, right?”
Saul pointed out that the first three aims of the corporatist movement in Germany, Italy and France during the 1920s, those that went on to become part of the Fascist experience, were “to shift power directly to economic and social interest groups, to push entrepreneurial initiative in areas normally reserved for public bodies” and to “obliterate the boundaries between public and private interest—that is, challenge the idea of the public interest.”
“There are a handful of people who haven’t been published in mainstream journals, who haven’t been listened to, who have been marginalized in every way,” Saul said. “There are a couple of them and you could turn to them. But then who do you give the orders to? And the people you give the orders to, they are not going to understand the orders because it hasn’t been a part of their education. So it’s a real problem of a good general who suddenly finds that his junior generals and brigadiers and corporals, you want them to do irregular warfare and they only know how to do trenches. And so how the hell do you get them to do this thing which they’ve never been trained to do? And so you get this kind of disorder, confusion inside, and the danger of what rises up there is populism; we’ve already had populism in a way, but we could get more populism, more fear and anger.”
We may elect representatives to Congress to end the war in Iraq, but the war goes on. We may plead with these representatives to halt Bush’s illegal wiretapping but the telecommunications lobbyists make sure it remains in place. We may beg them not to pass the bailout but 850 billion taxpayer dollars are funneled upward to the elites on Wall Street. We may want single-payer, not-for-profit health care but it is not even discussed as a possibility in presidential debates. We, as individuals in this system, are irrelevant.
“I’ve talked to several Supreme Court justices, several times in several countries,” Saul told me, “and I say, look, in your rulings, can you differentiate easily in cases between the social contract and the commercial contract, and to which the answer is, we can no longer differentiate. And that lies at the heart of the problem. You don’t have the concept of the other, and of obligation of the individual leading to individualism. You can’t have that if the whole legal system has slipped over the last, really, 50 years, increasingly, to a confusion between the social contract and the commercial contract. Because they are two completely different things. The social contract is about the public good, responsible individualism, imagining the other. The commercial contract is a commercial contract. They’re not supposed to be confused. They don’t actually fit together. The commercial contract only works properly when the social contract works in a democracy.”
The working class, which has desperately borrowed money to stay afloat as real wages have dropped, now face years, maybe decades, of stagnant or declining incomes without access to new credit. The national treasury meanwhile is being drained on behalf of speculative commercial interests. The government—the only institution citizens have that is big enough and powerful enough to protect their rights—is becoming weaker, more anemic and less able to help the mass of Americans who are embarking on a period of deprivation and suffering unseen in this country since the 1930s. Consumption, the profligate engine of the U.S. economy, is withering. September retail sales across the U.S. fell 1.2 percent. The decline was almost double the 0.7 percent drop analysts expected from consumers, whose spending represents two-thirds of U.S. economic activity. There were 160,000 jobs lost last month and three-quarters of a million jobs lost this year. The reverberations of the economic meltdown are only beginning.
I do not think George W. Bush or Barack Obama or John McCain or Henry Paulson are fascists. Rather, they are part of a cabal of naive, mediocre and self-deluded capitalists who are steadily weakening political and economic structures to a point where our democracy will become so impotent that it can be blown aside, probably with broad popular support. The only question is how this will happen. Will there be a steady and slow decline as in the late Roman Empire when the Senate ended as a farce? Will we see a powerful right-wing backlash from those outside the mainstream political system, as we did in Yugoslavia, and the rise of a militant Christian fascism? Will there be a national crisis that allows those in power to instantly sweep away all constitutional rights in the name of national security?
I do not know. But I do know that what is coming, as long as our oligarchy remains in charge, will not be good. We will either recover the concept of the public good, and this means a revolt against our bankrupt elite and the dynamiting of the corporatist structure, or we will extinguish our democracy.
AP photo / Henny Ray Abrams