Thomas Picketty is the latest economist to enjoy his fifteen minutes of fame in the Media Circus, which he’s gained by demonstrating — with hard numbers — that unregulated capitalism increases the wealth gap, and that the unprecedented rise of an affluent middle class in the US from 1945 to 1980 was largely because of high taxes.
He’s been panned in the Amazon reviews of his book by the usual assortment of trolls (paid and otherwise), but it’s all “Bah, Humbug, he’s a dirty Socialist” rant. Someone commented that The Right seems particularly inarticulate in its response to Picketty. I laughed myself silly at this, and thought, “Since when has The Right been articulate about anything?”
That got me to thinking. Certainly, the Republican Party is a mess at the moment, and it has an unusual number of the insane and the foolish within its ranks speaking their minds without any censure from the Republican leadership, which tars them all with a rather large and sticky brush. But it seems, on reflection, impossible to believe that Republicans, and the political right in general, stands for nothing.
I think they do have visions of the future. I’d like to explore this a little. I’m going to go back to an earlier post of mine, Republicans and Democrats, which came out of some research I did during the run-up to the 2012 Presidential election.
There are — or were, in 2012 — four major factions within the Republican Party: the Traditionals, the Neocons, the Religious Right, and the Tea Party. One of the reasons they don’t (and can’t) get along is because they have very different visions of the future.
The Traditionals offer us Plutocracy. Plutocrats have been around since the invention of money, and their vision is simple and consistent: wealth is power, and power is wealth. Call it the “one dollar, one vote” platform. Or, “He who has the gold, makes the rules.”
The Neocons offer us a vision of Empire, achieved through military might. Empire has perennial roots that trace back to pre-feudal war bands, where a Strong Leader gathers together a group of ruffians, and they take what they want. In later stages, they offer protection from other war bands in exchange for being given what they want, and this then moves into taxes, paid military forces, laws, and eventually, Empire. Anyone who has played Sid Meyer’s computer game of Civilization is well-familiar with this story. While war bands go back into our tribal past, Empire is a relatively recent model, less than ten thousand years old.
The Religious Right offers us Theocracy. In Theocracy, a priestly caste tells us what the gods demand of us, and we obey because we are, after all, only mortals, and the gods are gods, and … well, isn’t it obvious? Theocracy is about as old as Empire, and probably has roots in our tribal traditions of shamanism.
The Tea Party offers us a specific form of Anarchy. Their stated belief is that the Rational Free Market sorts out everything — they refer to it as the Magic Of The Marketplace — and that government is actually harmful. Anarchy is the natural state of people in times of cultural collapse and disaster, and has thus been with us since the beginning.
The Democratic Party, by contrast, has a much more unified vision, if a less-organized front: they offer us Democratic National Socialism, which is the structure that most of us alive today were born into.
A short history lesson is in order. “Socialism” came from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when distinct economic classes were still a major part of political discourse, and Socialism was the party of what was called the Working Class, or the Labor Class. Its primary concern was workers’ well-being and advancement. In the early 20th century, the idea of “National Socialism” arose, in which Socialism was declared to be good for everyone in the nation, not merely the working class. Democratic National Socialism is, of course, National Socialism as it appears in a political system based on rule by the populace.
The Democratic Party support for Democratic National Socialism was adopted in the 1930’s, but has eroded over the last 30 years as our working class has been outsourced to other countries. The Party has been drifting toward Plutocracy, which is where the money for campaigns now lies.
I should also throw in a note about Fascism. The term itself is currently used as a “snarl-word” with little more meaning than “motherfucker.” The only government that ever actually called itself “Fascist” was Mussolini’s government in Italy during World War II. The term has been broadened by historians to refer to certain common elements of several very different forms of national government that rose in the 20th century, including the well-known Democratic National Socialist government of Germany from 1933 to 1945. None of these elements apply to the US government, or to any of the factions within it. However, Fascism is an option offered implicitly by the two existing political parties.
Fascism is a populist movement that arises under a demagogue. This happens when the legitimate political factions all abandon the center and instead retreat into ideological fantasies far-removed from the needs and desires of the nation as a whole. Finding no recourse in mainstream politics, people unite under a demagogue and seek to take over the dysfunctional government. It usually works out pretty well, in the short run, for anyone who isn’t one of the groups targeted for scapegoating — but it really sucks to be one of the scapegoats.
Though the US government is not Fascist, its continuing partisan deadlock and dysfunction, as well as the increasing distance of the two official parties from the center, is laying solid groundwork for the rise of Fascism in the US. The Tea Party had a shot at becoming a Fascist uprising, but the Plutocrats (led by the Koch brothers) subverted it before a demagogue had a chance to rise. The Occupy Wall Street movement was another group that could have become the ground for a Fascist uprising (and still might). Fringe politicians inflame and tap into the mob-rage that a demagogue will eventually exploit. So long as our government remains deadlocked by ideological extremists, it actively courts Fascism.
So those are the options the political parties in the US offer us, right now: Plutocracy, Empire, Theocracy, Anarchy, Socialism, and Fascism.
Not a very pretty picture, is it?
I have a few comments about these options.
Plutocracy is, of course, where the US is headed in the immediate future, with broad support from both the Republican Plutocrats and the Democratic Plutocrats, but I’m fairly sure it won’t go too much further, or last very long — meaning, it may outlive me, but it won’t outlive my grandchildren. The reason is simple: money makes you stupid. That isn’t my opinion — it’s what history tells us.
The first function of wealth is to insulate against pain and discomfort. But it is pain and discomfort that tells you when you are making bad choices. Cut yourself off from all pain and discomfort, and you no longer know when you are making fatal decisions, like sitting down in an open fire. Individuals who suffer from various kinds of severe neuropathy, such as victims of Hansen’s Disease (also known as leprosy) face this problem.
Similarly, the wealthy class is, by design and collective desire, “out of touch” with the real problems a nation faces. Addressing those problems is likely to cut into profits, and so they resist addressing the problems. They spend effort and wealth trying to deny or whitewash the problems. They promote bad decisions through every ounce of their political influence. As those bad decisions bring increasing hardships, the suffering falls on the poorer classes, and the wealthy invariably blame the victims — “they’re lazy” is always popular — and make even worse decisions to protect themselves and their wealth. The economy of the poorer classes eventually collapses under the bad decisions of the wealthy, and then the rich starve, too.
It’s a pretty obvious problem with our modern Plutocrats: of all the places they could choose to invest right now — education, sustainable energy, soil replenishment, carbon reduction, business and economic infrastructure — we find that investments instead go into moneylending, fracking, the Keystone pipeline, coal, outsourcing labor, and electronic gewgaws.
This is probably the single most identifiable pattern in the history of human civilizations. It’s what all the fuss over the “wealth gap” is all about. A large and increasing wealth gap is, for a civilization, a lot like an individual’s face turning gray-blue as they gasp for air and clutch at their chest. Both are symptoms of imminent decline, and often, demise: look at the Mayans, the Anasazi, the Easter Islanders, or hundreds of small kingdoms, states, and nations in the history of the world, all of which suffered from this pattern of misrule as hardship — usually environmental — stressed their system. Collapse isn’t guaranteed when a civilization gives in to Plutocracy, but it’s always a bad sign.
Empire has a basic problem, which we could call the linear-square law. Empire grows fat on conquest, which tends to increase as the circumference of its expanding size. Its costs, however, increase as the area of its expanding size. The basic geometric law is that the circumference of any closed shape is proportional to the size, but the area of that shape is proportional to the square of the size. Areas grow much, much faster than the circumference as the size gets larger.
When you have a small empire, successful expansion brings great wealth to everyone inside the empire. When you have a large empire, expansion brings little to the people of the empire. When you have a very large empire, expansions don’t bring in even enough to pay for themselves, and the costs of maintaining the increasingly bloated empire become a crushing burden. It’s one of the most basic reasons, along with plutocracy, that empires invariably fall.
The United States took its shot at empire-building beginning in the late 1800’s, and eventually expanded its influence to include both of the Americas, Europe, and large parts of the Middle East. It is perhaps the largest empire the world has seen to date. But the annexation of Asia that started in the 1950’s failed by the mid-1970’s, and marked the first major setback for the US global hegemony. A second turning-point came when the chief rival of the US, the USSR, disbanded in the late 1980’s. As a so-called “sole superpower,” the US has since faced the basic problem of maintaining its uncontested and bloated Empire.
The Neocons want to return to conquest, to bring more wealth into the US coffers, but conquest simply isn’t going to pay for itself given the extent of the existing US Empire. Our declining internal resources can no longer finance the endeavor. When it came to invading and conquering even a small and economically broken nation like Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld, for all his otherwise delusional megalomania, acknowledged that you go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had. We could not afford the army we wanted.
The empire-building days of the US are behind us.
Theocracy, of course, suffers from widespread deception, delusion, and fraud. The gods do not speak to the masses in a theocracy; they speak to the priests. Behind closed doors. That is, unless you proclaim a God-Emperor, as the Egyptian Pharaohs and the later Romans did. I don’t think I really need to elaborate on where that leads, regardless of the founders’ purity of motive.
Anarchy is always attractive in principle — No More Homework, No More Books, Kumbayah for Saints and Crooks — but it is very, very, very ugly in practice, much more so than the wicked Communism that every Good American is supposed to (still) hate.
What all four of these Republican visions have in common is less government, though the visions of “less” differ in very important ways.
The Plutocrats actually want a strong government and don’t care about the size, so long as its rules apply only to the rabble that pays for it. The purpose of government is to facilitate and protect the profits of the wealthy. Therefore, the government should tax the poor (not the rich), and the wealthy — who are the government — should reap the benefits of those taxes. Beyond that, government is an unwanted expense, and if it actually helps the rabble, they become less desperate, which makes them poor sweatshop labor. Give them healthcare, and they might even quit that soul-killing job to spend more time raising their kids. The Horror!
The Neocons want an ever-increasing, tax-funded military, to facilitate conquest and to collect tribute, as well as to maintain the internal security of the ruling class. Because of the linear-square law, however, the costs of maintaining internal security are a serious problem, and sparing anything on the rabble is a waste of resources — let the citizens fend for themselves, and deal with their own problems locally, under the watchful eyes of internal security forces that preserve the authority of the government. What’s inside the borders isn’t the business of government.
The Theocrats see no use for secular government at all. The dimwits among them think that God’s Law is sufficient to rule a modern nation — the brighter and less scrupulous want the power concentrated within the church, not the government. Their primary issue with the US government is that pesky “separation of church and state” clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution. So long as that is in place, the government is a competing power to religious authority, and Theocrats would like to see secular government go away completely, provided that it is replaced by their own sect. For you see, not all theocracies are equal: suggest to your average US Religious Republican that we might do well to convert to being, say, an Islamic nation, or even a Catholic nation, and you’d best be prepared to duck.
The Anarchists also have no use for government, in any form. Of the four, they are the only ones who actually want to shrink the government as a whole: indeed, their most extreme elements would like to abolish it entirely and sing Kumbayah around the warm fires of the Free Market. Anarchists, historically, almost always become shills for one group of Plutocrats or another, and the Tea Party is no exception.
Across the aisle from the Republicans, we have the Democrats.
Democratic National Socialism is the newest kid on the block, less than a century old, so its defects aren’t quite as obvious as the others. But it’s only the combination that is new. The pieces are quite old, and we’ve seen the failure modes in history.
The weakness of the Democratic part is the gullibility, ignorance, and disengagement of the populace. Democratic republics tend to fall into corruption, dysfunction, and deadlock. Popular democracies are at the mercy of the psychology of bread and circuses, and the irrational passions of the mob. Historically, Democracies don’t last long.
The National part has a problem in maintaining the fiction that we are all alike and have the same goals and aspirations, i.e. that the word “nation” means anything in the first place. It works well enough when the nation is prosperous, and everyone can have pretty much everything they want. When true hardship comes, nations tend to fracture and fall apart along tribal lines.
The Socialist part, oddly enough, is probably the most durable. Socialism is, after all, the basic structure of the family, tribe, and small village, and has been around far longer than even Plutocracy. It may even be wired into our brains as social animals. But in its pure form, it only works among smallish groups bound by some common features, such as blood-ties, or restrictive geography.
The Democratic National Socialists, by contrast to the four Republican factions, want and need a strong and expansive national government. Waste can, of course, be identified and trimmed, but cutting core elements or services of government is viewed as nothing short of betrayal of the “social contract.”
So we are offered Plutocracy, Empire, Theocracy, Anarchy, or Socialism — or, as the “none of the above” option, Fascism.
Plutocracy is a symptom of pending cultural heart attack, Empire is becoming a memory of our youth, Theocracy is corruption and madness, Anarchy is chaos, and Fascism is an utter horror.
Democratic National Socialism was what most of us alive today grew up with, and it presided through the peak of the US Empire. The criticisms leveled against it, are mostly hypothetical — primarily the fear (inflamed by the Plutocrats) that we can’t afford it.
Compared to the alternatives, that seems a pretty acceptable risk.