Capitalist Realism

As Aristotle said, the older we get the more we become involved with politics. In our later years as well, the mob scene of countless antagonisms and struggles coalesces into a more fundamental struggle between preservation of privilege and the extension of equal rights and equal opportunity.

Capitalist Realism has long left the realm of advertising, its fevered source of inspiration, for the so-called real world of political discourse. It came to a head in the coverage of the 2008 Presidential campaign. The media, universally from The Nation to the National Review, from CNN to FOX, from the LA Times to The New Yorker, all are framing this 2010 election as a duel-to-the-death between “Government,” whether intrusive controlling Nanny or an expert fair-minded broker, and “The Market,” whether no-holds-barred competition or the inspiration for the better mousetrap. Left and Right alike had seen McCain as a defender of the free market and a stern critic of government giveaways to the lazy and of government sticking its nose into board rooms. The same spectrum casts Obama, then and even more now, as one who sees government as a referee and leveler of the playing field, interfering with the natural (read inevitable) survival of the fittest that rules The Market. I believe the candidates may well see themselves this way and their followers may see their causes this way.

But it is simply, and obviously, a lie, a manipulative myth that has ingeniously played to the American Narrative of rugged individuals fighting for good against the corrupt sheriff (government) and conquering a virgin continent of abundant resources which captains of industry have exploited for the good of mankind. Liberals generally see the government as a necessary regulator to ensure the smooth functioning of markets (TARP with teeth).

But the real struggle is between Democracy and Plutocracy, not the government and the market. Our government has long favored business to build up our economy. Somewhere along the line, government handed over its police power and rule-making to the favored few that owned resources.

Nothing, nothing, that the ruling class has, whether legitimately and fairly or immorally and rapaciously, was gained without the cooperation and empowerment of government — private property title, land rights, transportation route allocation, licensing of patents, copyrighting. Obvious, is it not? But somehow this absolutely vast and essential role of government in maintaining any market economy is seen as just standing back and letting things happen.

Last year the courts endorsed a rule that restricts any damage payments for oil spillage to provable actual economic damage, nothing punitive. The Valdez spill has been reduced to $517 million, or twenty-four hours of Exxon income, for over a decade’s worth of disruption and destruction. Since the BP fiasco, Obama and friends negotiated, did not demand, with BP for a much larger fund to pay off claims — in tacit exchange for a deal that no more would be paid. For a few years now, corporations can file for bankruptcy in ways that let them completely off many hooks, such as that nagging pension fund obligation. Credit card debtors. However, now really get stripped. We all know the tale of Wall Street bailouts, the too-big-to-let-fail ploy. The rest is detail, known to any aware citizen. But these trees never add up to a forest of “government” handouts, favoritism for the rich.

One does see the term “corporate welfare”, but it is used to condemn an excess or aberration from the norm. The norm is corporate welfare. Even alleged sympathetic discussion of what is termed Obamanomics has the phony market/government dichotomy as an unassailable assumption.

The New Deal managed to turn government’s attention to the working classes and the poor so as to prevent the legal looting that led to so much poverty (banking and trading regulations). It was dealing with the real market of stakeholders as well as stockholders.

So can we please get today’s Democrats to at least say, “It’s Democracy, stupid!” Can we force the Boehmer-Roberts-Thomson-Scalia Plutocrats, formerly the Republican Party, to admit “It’s our government and we intend to keep it on a short leash except for when we need it — which is continually and massively — to consolidate our class and political power.” Then we could have a fundamentally honest debate between opposing philosophies and not a duel of rival frauds.

The Plutocrats might honestly argue that we are better off with enlightened captains of industry like Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates calling the shots. Some might feel that globalization means that global companies, with loyal Americans in the board room, have a better chance at meaningful foreign policy than labor unions. You might argue that Plutocrats are generally better educated and have traveled more (with some colossal exceptions, of course) than Joe Lunchpail or Mary Straphanger. Why should our Representatives and Senators and agency heads not be financially successful? They know how to get the government to work for them.

With these assumptions and others in the open, taxes and social spending might be discussed in a less dishonest frame of reference. In the end, “Government” and “Market” are more Orwellian obfuscations than “Democracy” and that alone is hard enough to grasp honestly — but it is the one thing we truly must understand.

But the Plutocrats profess a patronizing populism that insults while it exploits. Notwithstanding all the numbing details of legislation and committee hearings, the Great American Argument is fundamentally that of knowledge and evidence versus loyalty and class.

So the fights over the stimulus package, minimum wage, organized labor, universal health care, foreign military commitments, domestic civil liberties and international human rights resolve into the one fight about what interest the instruments of state should essentially serve. Should the state take positive steps to spread equality and participation or should it armor-plate the ruling class — and we surely have a ruling class when less than the top five-percent control just short of 80% of wealth and just short of one half of all income. For these entrenched few the American Dream is reality and can be maintained only if for the rest it is the American Pipedream.

As Obama as said, we can have honest disagreements about what are the most effective means to achieve equality, safety nets, and individual security, but we must agree that means must be taken and that these means be appropriate for the task.

Since the end of Watergate, more astute masters of detail than I have chronicled the imposing march of accumulation of wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands which may be summed up as the principle that the big cannot be allowed to fail, with the tacit assumption that the small and weak have just lost out in the survival of the fittest.

A landmark for this unrelenting progress was the virtual cancellation of corporate tax under Reagan and the subsequent repair of the Social Security Trust Fund through the imposition of much higher payroll taxes. The great growth of government in military hardware and personnel was made possible by simply treating the Trust Fund revenue as part of the USG general revenue. Simple folk whose taxes went up and up were constantly told that taxes were coming down and that government was getting out of their lives. Of course the paradox is resolved if you understand social services as government and taxes as taxes on corporations and on the most wealthy. Increased payroll taxes, especially the parts designated for Social Security and Medicare don’t count as taxes in this frame. The media were of great help in keeping this swindle wreathed in the smoke and mirrors of marketing applied to politics.

Today this process has come to a climax in which the efforts to perpetuate the illusion are becoming herculean and desperate.

The GOP leadership has been given much unchallenged time to repeat over and over that the Stimulus does not create jobs, is not what the American People want, and costs far too much. It is a mark of how degraded our discourse has become that this repetition without rebuttal had at first managed to lower polled general support for the program, and to have induced Obama and the Democrats to gut important parts of the plan and insert counterproductive tax cuts. Most economists agree that the mammoth problem will require mammoth funding to resolve and that it cannot be done halfway any more than a diver can quit at any depth below the surface and live. So to chip away is to destroy as well as deface.