Thursday, April 16, 2015

Democratic Politics and the Culture of Money

I was reading the other day about some recent financial scandals in South America, and I was struck by this line from a Chilean magazine about the latest allegations there:
Whether they’re from the left, center or right, the members of a small elite have the money and power in their hands.
Obviously this is nothing new, especially not in Latin America. Money and power have a very strong tendency to converge no matter where you are. One of the arguments made by partisans of aristocratic rule, going back at least to the 13th century, was that people without family wealth behind them were simply too easily corrupted by money to be trusted with the nation's affairs. Sadly it has turned out that even the already rich can be easily corrupted by really big money, like that of the sugar barons or Indian nabobs in 18th-century Britain, so the aristocratic solution has never excluded corruption from public life.

I think one of the great questions about democracy is whether it can thrive in a capitalist world, especially one in which money is celebrated as pretty much the greatest possible good. My real fear about the rising class of American billionaires and mega-millionaires is that they will wield too much power, effectively excluding the mass of the people from influencing the government. The specter of a magnate like Sheldon Adelson holding what amounts to his own primary for Republican candidates disturbs me; the Kochs and their allies have built up a political machine outside party control that seems poised to exert a big influence on America. The very rich have the time and resources to lobby ceaselessly for their interests; in something else I read recently, a government regulator said it was hard to make tax policy against the interests of the rich because "the wind only blows from one direction." Who speaks for the rest of us? In the era of the robber barons there were other forces in America that counter-balanced the robber barons' power, especially farmers and the labor movement. With the support of those groups, and the threat of communist revolution looming offstage, the Progressives and then the New Dealers were able to pass laws for the benefit of the whole people, over the opposition of business interests. Just as important as the organizations of farmers and workers, I think, were the values they represented. In 1900 millions of Americans believed that there was something morally suspect about capitalism, and about the men who had gotten rich from it. They believed that the best sort of life was an ordinary one: work, family, friends, community, religion.

Is there anyone left in America who believes such quaint things? I have trouble seeing it. Work is a sort of scam by which the gullible are conned into enduring drudgery for the clever few who are at the top or on their way there; religion, at least in political terms, is all about the showy struggles of the culture war, which I sometimes think was dreamed up rich capitalists to distract both conservatives and progressives from their renewed grab for wealth and power. There are no separate elites in America now, just the one elite in which money and influence merge. As recently as the 1950s Congressmen who lost races sometimes ended up in menial jobs, like the ex-senator who famously ran the elevator in the senate office building. Now nobody thinks it at all strange that they all end up as rich lobbyists or business executives. Their identity as members of the elite matters much more to them than their party or whether they are inside government or out. One of the key beliefs of this elite is that money is a great thing, and that everybody who can should grab a big pile of it. If anybody ends up without it, that's his or her own fault. Sure, there are a few oddballs on the fringe who prefer extreme sports or spiritual questing to money or power, but they reject ordinary life in their own way and can be even more contemptuous of the suburban masses; the ones I know are politically libertarians.

If everyone in the elite regards ordinary people as hopeless losers, who will stand up for us? If everyone in the elite believes that whatever the rich manage to lay their hands on is theirs by right, how can we restrain their power?

Money has completely captured the "conservative" movement in America, which now stands mainly for helping the rich avoid taxes. By spreading the fear of big government and of nefarious brown people, they have converted a near majority of the country to their laissez faire ideology. But the Democrats are often only a little better; for example, attempts to save money in Medicare by negotiating with drug companies have been blocked every time by an alliance of pro-business Republicans and Democrats from states with big pharmaceutical industries. This is because Democratic Congressmen and Senators are members of that same elite and work within its meritocratic assumptions; they care much more about having rich friends so they can fund lavish campaigns (even in totally safe districts) and insure themselves a cushy retirement than they do about either people on Medicare or the national budget. They think pharmaceutical companies and their investors deserve a "reasonable return" on their investments, and their idea of "reasonable" is distorted by their living in a closed-off little world where everybody is rich. That a company in the business of saving lives should accept a lower profit in order to help somebody else, or to serve the national interest, strikes them as absurd. Whatever for?

As long as the belief reigns in America that the successful deserve lavish rewards, and that only losers complain about the game being rigged, money and power will continue to coalesce in an elite that mainly looks after its own interests rather than anyone else's.

Or so I reason in gloomy moods. Other days this seems a bit far-fetched to me; after all, the government is elected by the middle class and is generally pretty responsive to our concerns. But when cries of "socialism" and "class warfare" go up over proposals to raise the tax rate to 40%, and millions of people take this seriously, I wonder if  it is even possible to limit the aggrandizement of the rich in a world that worships financial success above all other things.


pootrsox said...

Outstanding commentary, sir.

I posted a link to my FB feed. (I do that not infrequently with your more thoughtful essays.)

G. Verloren said...

Capitalism has its share of fundamental problems. In a world of competition, there must be losers in order for others to be winners.

Pure capitalism is absolutely monstrous - prone to devastating market failures on a systemic level, and ruthless exploitation on an individual one. To make it workable we have to impose artificial limits - but this is an uphill battle, for all the reasons mentioned in the above commentary.

Yet even with ideal conditions, capitalism is still ultimately reliant on 1) constant net growth or expansion, which is completely impossible in a world of finite resources; and 2) the basic expectation of universal competition, which is completely incompatible with the realities of human life. Not everyone in the world is willing or capable of competing successfully. Even among those who are both willing and able to compete, some are simply more suited to competition than others - either through intrinsic qualities, or through sheer luck and circumstance.

Yet capitalism makes absolutely no distinction between the needs and means of individuals, and it expects those who succeed to do so at the expense of those who fail - literally to the point of death. The system is brutally Darwinian, just instead of reproduction of a species, the emphasis is on reproduction of wealth. Capitalism is a system of predation, parasitism, and exclusion - ultimately favoring the most virulent and cancerous elements best able to self-propagate at the expense of all others.

Hence why market imbalances occur. Just as uncontrolled populations of deer and wolves will cycle through massive breeding explosions and subsequent catastrophic die offs, so too do uncontrolled markets boom and bust. And just as such cycles of instability ultimately endanger the very existence of entire species, so too do such cyles in capitalism endanger humanity.