Written by Derryl Hermanutz
What People Want
If agriculture was the beginning of civilization, metal-making and metal tools (and weapons) were the beginning of the corporate industrial era. The 18th century Romantic Jean-Jacques Rousseau — who imagined the Stone Age lifestyle of New World American Indians as idyllic — named metallurgy as the downfall of humanity’s original innocence.
In the 21st century “Green Utopians” imagine themselves living in futuristic cities enjoying hi-tech industrial luxuries like iPads and air travel, without monopolistic, politically influential transnational corporations digging up the Earth’s resources and burning energy to build the cities and produce the luxuries.
Capitalist industrial civilization certainly has its discontents. But it’s far more commodious to human material interests than any realistic alternative.
It could be made more economically “fair”. An artificial scarcity of “money” — to earn as income and profit and interest and to save up as capital and savings — drives businesses to overproduce, banks to over-lend, and households and governments to over-indebt themselves to the point of periodic financial collapses. It is the pursuit of artificially scarce $numbers that drives the need for continuous economic “growth”. A dearth of numbers ($) prevents fiscal hiring of idle people and economic capacity to perform needed social services and maintenance of public infrastructure.
It’s a Zero Sum World
It sounds stupid when you come right out and say we have surrendered our economic free will to the arithmetic commandments of a zero sum balance sheet equation that issues all the money-numbers. But that’s exactly what we are doing, right now.
Voting is the new opiate of the capitalist masses. The Princeton study of over 1700 policy choices over 20 years demonstrated beyond doubt that America’s elected government serves the interests of corporations and rich individuals. The number of policies that favored the democratic majority interest — where it conflicted with the corporate interest — was “statistically insignificant”.
The Plutocratic Empire
Already by 1870 Richard Franklin Pettigrew was calling the US a plutocratic empire, masquerading as a democratic republic. FDR’s economic bill of rights was rejected, along with the economic democracy it sought to establish. Monetary democracy does not exist at all — private commercial banks create and allocate the money of nations. And whatever economic democracy still exists is being eroded by intensifying corporate oligopoly and an artificial shortage of fiscal spending money and a paralyzing excess of private and public debt.
But even after that perhaps “harsh” description of present reality, I have failed to discover any realistic alternative that would be much “better” than the civilization we live in right now. Technically feasible utopias ignore the reality of power that pursues its own path to glory — which utopians see as dystopian — but whose mesmerizing spell and gravitational mass draws nations along with it.
Civilization is organized by power, which may or may not be informed by enlightened reason. Intellectuals make themselves useful to power as a religious or secular priesthood who invent credible scenarios — origin myths, ideologies, worldviews — that morally and logically justify the wealth, privilege, and social supremacy of the civilization’s ruling powers. The credulous masses believe in these attractive fabrications that justify the moral and logical right of their rulers to rule.
Buying the Myth
But now, it very much appears that our economists and policymakers have taken to believing the myths too.
Some people –proud maybe — are driven to work ceaselessly doing whatever it takes to climb the social-political ladder to power and glory, in mortal competition with other people who seek the same goal. Others are driven — by greed maybe — to accumulate great wealth by all means fair and foul. In these human power struggles there are no rules. Success is its own justification. The victors write the rules.
Capitalist civilization has achieved the broadest distribution of power and wealth, which makes capitalism perhaps the most “democratic” of historical civilizations. But — as Andrew Carnegie’s Triumphant Democracy illustrates — it is a democracy of the ambitious social competitors for power, not of the individualists or the meek masses.
Before the 20th century, only white male property owners could vote in American elections. By the time women and blacks and poor people got the vote, America’s financial and economic government had been firmly established in private corporate hands.
“Neoliberalism” — the belief that private government by money and property ownership is superior to political government — is not a recent phenomenon but has always been the guiding moral principle of “capitalism”.
Social Competition and Freedom
There was social competition between aristocrats in feudal society, and there is social competition among capitalists in capitalist society. Under feudalism an oligarchy of aristocrats owned all the land in an agrarian economy. Under capitalism an oligarchy of capitalists own most of the financial, commercial and industrial infrastructure in a financial-commercial-industrial economy.
But unlike feudalism, capitalism leaves significant latitude for individualists to live and work outside the corporate-state system. As long as that economic freedom remains, capitalism is a “freer”, more inclusively “democratic” system than feudalism.
Remember, our standard is not “perfection”. There are competing versions of what perfection looks like, competing paths to opposite Utopias. Very many people feel secure within the corporate-state system, and do not want economic freedom and the personal responsibility that comes with it. The system fails them when it fails to provide the financial and economic security that justifies the system in the eyes of these people. The system fails lovers of liberty when it narrows the latitude for individualists to live and work relatively unmolested outside the corporate-state system.
In his 1970 book, The Greening of America, Charles Reich was convinced that the momentum of the Boomers’ 1960s cultural revolution was unstoppable. He believed Western culture was irreversibly transforming from corporate state materialism toward a “higher consciousness“.
Then Lewis Powell penned his famous (or infamous, to those whose moral compass points in the opposite direction) Powell Memo: a 1971 call to arms of the counter-revolution. Powell warned of the potential policy consequences of the ideological assaults that were being waged upon the moral and logical foundations of American capitalism, and called upon capitalists to join forces to defend the American Enterprise System.
Powell explicitly named Reich as a leader of the enemy camp, and urged America’s rich and corporate to contribute their money and organizational talents toward the counter-offensive. “Free market” think tanks and other ideological arms merchants were established and deployed into the fray, countering every social democratic ideal with a corporate capitalist counterattack, in the battle for the American popular mind and political will.
A culture of higher consciousness proved not to be so inevitable as Reich expected. 1960s hippies — many of who were there for the dope and free sex more than for the higher consciousness — became yuppies who elected Reagan and populated the 1980s Decade of Greed (exemplified by corporate raider and junk bonder Michael Milken who was characterized by Michael Douglas in the Wall Street movie).
It was 1987 when Deng Xiaoping told the Chinese, “To get rich is glorious“, which unleashed the ongoing torrent of Chinese capitalism. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The Soviet Union disintegrated, and the communists-cum-oligarchs under the drunken Yeltsin proceeded to seize ownership of Russian industry, to operate as their own private property or to sell to Western corporations. Putin slammed the brakes on the liquidation sale of Russia, and became a pariah to the neoliberal moral order.
Ideology matters. Propaganda works. Organized mass propaganda is able to fill people’s heads with a false worldview; drape their minds with a distorting veil that sees things that aren’t there and is oblivious to things that are in front of its nose.
But a vast majority of humanity really wants material wealth, which is what corporate capitalist civilization delivers. It’s not hard to sell people what they already want. It’s not hard to convince consumers that consumer niceties are the only thing they want, or at least the main thing. Higher consciousness readily succumbs to material comforts and electronic marvels in the battle for the public’s heart and mind.
This will continue until mesmerized humanity finds itself saddled with a great red stain of unpayable debt, astride which burdened beast luxuriates a purple harlot who rules over the kings and nations of the Earth with a magic fountain of credit.
Continued in Part 4, to be published.