January 11, 2011
The modern transnational oligarchy
When it comes to politics, my preference is to think long-term and to use short-term trends simply as indicators of what the long-term future is going to be like. So I have little patience with much of news 'analysis' that is primarily tactical, following the fortunes of individual elections and individual candidates, unless I think those races signify some major trend.
Given my gloom about the current direction that the US is taking, it may surprise some readers that I am by nature an optimist and I can often find silver linings in the darkest clouds. But in the case of the US, the only silver linings that I see are in the long term. In the short term, I fear that things are going to become very bad.
The reasons for my gloomy outlook are because of the systemic causes of the problems that currently beset the US. As long as there is no mass recognition of the deep causes of problems, we are doomed to pursue ineffective policies. The US is at present mired in two publicly acknowledged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, two secret wars in Pakistan and Yemen, and two potential wars in Iran and Somalia. These are all part of a futile 'war on terror' that it can never win by force of arms but which is a huge drain on the treasury. Couple this with an oligarchy that seems to have lost all sense of restraint and seems hell-bent on looting the public treasury for its own short-term benefit with little or no concern for the long-term consequences for the nation as a whole, and you have a prescription for major trouble ahead.
Even conservative Francis Fukuyama writes that we now have a plutocracy in the US.
We mean not just rule by the rich, but rule by and for the rich. We mean, in other words, a state of affairs in which the rich influence government in such a way as to protect and expand their own wealth and influence, often at the expense of others. As the introductory essay to this issue shows, this influence may be exercised in four basic ways: lobbying to shift regulatory costs and other burdens away from corporations and onto the public at large; lobbying to affect the tax code so that the wealthy pay less; lobbying to allow the fullest possible use of corporate money in political campaigns; and, above all, lobbying to enable lobbying to go on with the fewest restrictions. Of these, the second has perhaps the deepest historical legacy.
Countries are almost always run by a ruling class largely for the benefit of that ruling class, so what Fukuyama is saying is not new. What is new is that larger segments of even the conservative intelligentsia are coming around to that realization that even within such a system, what creates some semblance of national unity and prevents deep social unrest is the idea of noblesse oblige, the sense among the ruling class that they have at least some obligation to serve the needs of society as a whole in addition to enriching themselves. At the very least this was a form of self-interest, to create a positive image of themselves to avoid things becoming so bad as to create a revolutionary situation. As a result of this sensibility, one saw investment in public works and amenities (roads, rail, parks, libraries, schools, etc.) and the rise of the welfare state within capitalism. In days gone by one even saw members of the ruling class actually volunteer to fight in their country's wars, an idea that would seem quaint to the members of the current oligarchy.
Those days are gone. The concept of noblesse oblige is completely foreign to the present oligarchy in the US. They would find laughable the idea of any personal sacrifice for the common good or that the well being of the nation requires at least some checks on their own wealth accumulation. We are now past the stage of the ordinary capitalism that unleashed enormous productive capacities and growth and have entered an era of rapacious and predatory capitalism, where unchecked greed reigns supreme, and where the wealthy are beginning to compete amongst each other to see how much and how quickly they can enrich themselves at the expense of the public good.
Felix Salmon points to an article by Chrystia Freeland in the January/February 2011 issue of The Atlantic titled The Rise of the New Global Elite on how the present oligarchy is quite different from the oligarchies of the past and views the middle classes with contempt. They see themselves as having succeeded purely on their merit and entirely deserving of their huge wealth and see no obligation to society as a whole.
What is more relevant to our times, though, is that the rich of today are also different from the rich of yesterday. Our light-speed, globally connected economy has led to the rise of a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth. Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly.
The idea that the poor are poor through their own fault and are thus 'undeserving' of any consideration and quite expendable is a very old idea. What is changing is that the line of demarcation has shifted upwards quite suddenly so that the group that constitutes the lower middle class and even the middle class, once considered the bedrock workers on which the economy was built, now find themselves also being considered expendable because their jobs can easily be outsourced to other countries or replaced by machines or by squeezing other workers to do more. This is why we can now have a 'jobless recovery', whereby the stock market and profits are soaring while unemployment remains high.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a short story The Rich Boy (1926), "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me", a theme he had elaborated on in his novel The Great Gatsby that was published in the same year. What we see is that the very rich now are not just different from you and me, they are even different from the rich of the past. And not in a good way.
Next: Warning signs of trouble ahead.