Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Plutocracy Awakens

There once was a land that now seems from long ago and far away.  In that society, the inhabitants had endured an evil period with a long war and an extended period of economic deprivation.  They learned the hard way that a healthy and robust society requires a sense of community in which the concept of “the common good” reigns.  This society organized itself in such a way that the weak and the unlucky were not allowed to suffer too much and the strong and the lucky were not allowed to profit too much from their circumstances.  However, the strong and lucky, before the evil times, had used their circumstances to increase their wealth far beyond that of the majority of the people.  They would eventually want to return to their previous position of wealth and power.

Daniel T. Rodgers, in his book Age of Fracture, has documented the means by which the wealthy and the lucky would transform society from one focused on the common good to one focused on the individual good.

“In this reading of late-twentieth century U.S. history, the key to the age was the conscious efforts of conservative intellectuals and their institutional sponsors to reshape not only the terms of political debate but the mechanics of intellectual production itself.   By the late 1970s, Nixon’s former secretary of the Treasury, the Wall Street investor William E. Simon, was urging that ‘the only thing that can save the Republican Party….is a counterintelligentsia,’ created by funneling funds to writers, journalists, and social scientists whose ideas had been frozen out of general circulation by the ‘dominant socialist-statist-collectivist orthodoxy’ prevailing in the universities and media.”

The wealthy wrapped themselves in the mantel of conservatism, but the goal was to shed any constraints on businesses and initiate a new era of wealth accumulation.  And with increased wealth would come increased power.

“Within a decade, Simon’s project had dramatically reshaped the production and dissemination of ideas.  Older foundations, Simon’s Olin Foundation in the lead, turned into conscious incubators of new conservative ideas, publicizing books and sponsoring authors, subsidizing student organizations and newspapers, and establishing university positions and programs for the promotion of ideas more favorable to business enterprise, all with the intent of changing the prevailing terms of debate.  With corporate and entrepreneurial support, a global network of conservative think tanks proliferated to advance market sympathetic ideas and speed their way aggressively into media and political debate.  Journals and newspapers were floated on new conservative money.”

Rodgers concludes that this strategy was broadly successful in altering how individuals viewed their relationship to society as a whole.

“The work of the conservative idea brokers changed the landscape of publication and intellectual argument….In some areas—the law and economics movement in the legal faculties, the hardening terms of debate over policy toward the poor, the creation of the Federalist Society as a fraternity of like-minded law students and faculty, and the elaboration of a neoconservative foreign policy—the work of the conservative intellectual establishment was decisive.”

Rodgers recognizes that a plutocratic minority was successful at influencing society in a way that enhanced their prospects, but he does not favor the notion that the major transformation of society can be attributed to them.  He provides an alternate starting point.

“In this reading of the age, the precipitant of its cultural and intellectual transformations was the collapse of the high-wage, high-benefits ‘Fordist’ economy that had dominated post-World War II American society.”

Rodgers seems to think that the “collapse” was the result of the operation of some fundamental economic law rather than being initiated due to the wishes of plutocrats with the power to make things happen.

Wealth provides political power and political power produces more wealth….and so on.

Perhaps a better understanding of society’s current state can be obtained by turning away from academics and listening to those who preach the gospel of the individual good.  In one of the recent Republican debates Donald Trump was asked if it was appropriate for him to have contributed money to the campaigns of Democrats.  He replied—in so many words—when politicians asked him for money he gave it to them—all of them.  And later, when he needed something, he asked them for it and they gave it to him.  No one was surprised or disconcerted by the comment.

And so the plutocracy came to rule the land.

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