What corporate America wanted was nothing less than the Third Worlding of the US, a collapse of both present reality and future expectations. The closer the life and wages of our citizens could come to those of less developed nations, the happier the huge stateless multinationals would be. Then, as they said in the boardrooms and at the White House, the global playing field would be leveled. Once having capitulated on economic matters, Americans would be taught to accept a similar diminution of social programs, civil liberties, democracy, and even some of the most basic governmental services. Free of being the agent of our collective will, government could then concentrate on the real business of a corporatist state, such as reinforcing the military, subsidizing selected industry, and strengthening police control over what would inevitably be an increasingly alienated and fractured electorate.
We would be taught to deny ourselves progress and to blame others for our loss. Worse, underneath the sturm und drang of political debate, the American establishment — from corporate executive to media to politician — reached a remarkable consensus that it no longer had to play by any rules but its own.
There is a phrase for this in some Latin American countries: the culture of impunity. In such places it has led to death squads, to the live bodies of dissidents being thrown out of military helicopters, to routine false imprisonment and baroque financial fraud. We are not there yet but are certainly moving in the same direction. In a culture of impunity, rules serve the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values typically guide a country, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition.
The culture of impunity encourages coups and cruelty, at best practices only titular democracy, and puts itself at the service of what Hong Kong, borrowing from fascist Germany and Italy, refers to as “functional constituencies,” which is mainly to say major corporations. A culture of impunity varies from ordinary political corruption in that the latter represents deviance from the culture while the former becomes the culture. Such a culture does not announce itself. It creeps up day by day, deal by deal, euphemism by euphemism.
The intellectual achievement, technocratic pyrotechnics, and calm rationality that serves as a patina for the culture of impunity can be dangerously misleading. In a culture of impunity, what replaces constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all that sort of arcane stuff? Mainly greed and power. As Michael Douglas put it in Wall Street: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.”
Of course, there has always been an overabundance of greed in America’s political and economic system. But a number of things have changed. As activist attorney George LaRoche points out, “Once, I think, we knew our greedy were greedy but they were obligated to justify their greed by reference to some of the other values in which all of us could participate. Thus, maybe ‘old Joe’ was a crook but he was also a ‘pillar of the business community’ or ‘a member of the Lodge’ or a ‘good husband’ and these things mattered. Now the pretense of justification is gone and greed is its own justification.” The result is a stunning lack of restraint. We find ourselves without heroism, without debate over right and wrong, with little but an endless narcissistic struggle by the powerful to get more money, more power, and more press than the next person. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win, lose, or get caught. – Sam Smith, Why Bother?, 2001
Sam Smith – When I wrote that, I assumed that, having ditched the First American Republic, we might well move towards some form of ordered and unpleasant tyranny. I assumed that the establishment would stick to its agenda that we would be expected to understand and obey.
After all, as I wrote at the time, “we all live in a Mafia neighborhood now.” And a big part of living in a Mafia neighborhood is that you know what the rules are. But what I missed was the possibility that the forces driving the elite would not only destroy our America, but their America as well. And it wasn’t until the chaos, confusion, crises, conflicts and controversies of the last year and a half that it became apparent that both victim and tyrant had lost this battle.
What has happened is that atomized ambition has created aggregated anarchy. No one controls the country any more. Yes, they are in charge of the buttons, but the buttons no longer work. The housing and stock markets have collapsed. Academics act as though they haven’t gotten their GED yet. Intellectuals grasp at adjectives and metaphors that bear no contact with reality. Corporate executives speak of markets long gone. We are in wars no one can defend reasonably yet against which there is no major protest. Reporters prefer adjectives over facts and have come to think of skepticism as a form of extremism. Sanctified, sanctimonious figures in the church and the GOP are caught in gay trysts. And a hustler named Madoff easily rips off the very high society of which he was a part.
Among the most striking developments has been the impermeable inconsistency of the Obama administration. Although it has spoken repeatedly of transparency, seldom has there been an administration whose true purpose was more difficult to perceive.
Of course, it has been aided mightily by a Democratic Senate that created months of trouble for itself simply by choosing not to revert to traditional rules that could have made it the most, rather than the least, effective upper body in years. Instead, all you needed for a filibuster was to hand in a slip of paper.
The results have been unlike anything that has ever been seen on Capitol Hill. Put together the stimulus package, the health care bill and banking reform and you have a triptych of laws of uncertain purpose, volcanic confusion and concealed contradiction – one to two thousand pages making the future impenetrable until it will be too late to do much about it.
Congress used to pass legislation in order to accomplish something, whether for good or evil. Now we have major bills no one can accurately explain, no one can predict their consequences and no one can convincingly argue on their behalf save for a series of abstractions easily balanced by similar vagaries of the opposition.
We do know that the stimulus bill has so far done little worthwhile, unless you work on Wall Street. Unemployment remains high, foreclosures have not been significantly limited and public works are pathetic.
What the score will be for the health care measure is far harder to guess, for the legislators and Obama have simply hid some of its most important elements for years in the future.
As for the so-called bank reform measure, it was clearly a gift to Wall Street. Yet the LA Times, among others, called it “the most sweeping rewrite of financial rules since the Great Depression.”
In fact, the bill didn’t even bring back the Glass-Steagall Act which would have been the most sweeping rewrite of financial rules since, well since 1999, when Bill Clinton and Congress buried it.
Eric Alterman came closer to the truth: “When was the last time Congress passed a bill so large that even its significant provisions resisted summarization, both for reasons of complexity and enormity? If you said ‘health care,’ well, perhaps you’re noticing a pattern. Once again, Democrats spent the better part of a year playing three-dimensional chess with themselves, lobbyists, and Republicans to pass. . . The actual provisions of this bill are beyond the capacity of most of us to understand”
Add to all this the BP disaster, in which our leaders desperately try to spin the oil away by endless news conferences in front of a gulf they never cared about before. And the attempt to dismantle a system of public education that for a couple of centuries helped make America a place to admire.
How does one define politics in times like this? In truth, the only parties that still have a whit of purpose are the Greens, Libertarians and Socialists and they can’t hardly make it on the ballot. The rest has been reduced to office politics.
We have now gone through a year and a half when either nothing has happened or nobody can tell what has happened. Yet the elite still acts like they know what they are up to and their indentured media loyally spreads the myth.
For example, Obama appoints a Supreme Court justice whom none of her social ilk can describe much except to say how smart she is. These same figures, however, then proceed to admit that her views are a “blank page.”
Is the only purpose of intelligence to go through life filling out crossword puzzles correctly? Might it not help to do or say something worthwhile that someone might remember? Apparently, by today’s elite standards, that is not smart.
Obama himself warned us in his memoirs that he was merely a mirror, that people would see what they wanted in him. Only now are many who voted for him beginning to realize that Barack Obama never really existed; he was only a transient reaction to things that really existed – a reaction based on what seemed to be most beneficial or safest for himself at the moment.
One leader of this kind would be a problem in any period, but when a whole elite has given up shared values, community and conscience in order to play the game solo, you have a problem that can destroy your entire culture.
And that’s where we find ourselves. Vicky Ward gets close to the nub in her book on the desperate housewives of Lehman Brothers. The illusion of common purpose – taken to the extreme of precisely defined clothing, rigorously shared charities and climbing mountains together – is finally shattered by the reality that the men who were supposed to be partners in a common endeavor actually viewed each other as one more market to manipulate and beat.
Lately a strange image has been bouncing about in my head. It is a scene of urban riots, flames in the street, of aimed guns and aimless bodies. But the people in the image aren’t the poor and the helpless, and they are not in Athens or Bangkok. Rather they are in Washington and they are judges and CEOs and lawyers and MBAs and cabinet officials and TV news hosts. They are looting stores, smashing statues, and lighting gasoline in a desperate last act of the greed that got them so far yet now has so little to offer. Their memories can no longer recall conscience, causes, or community. They have no friends, allies or movements. They are on their own just like the Lehman Brothers housewife to whom former friends would longer speak after the firm had died.
We have, from a young age, been trained to respect, admire and follow our leaders. Even now, you can hardly find a major op ed writer or a TV commentator who will admit that those who are supposed to show us the way have disintegrated like, say, a malfunctioning deep water well or a high rolling hedge fund.
But we’re on our own now. Which was never a bad idea; it was just that we weren’t meant to think about it.
If Obama has done us one favor, perhaps it is this: we now know there is no one waiting behind the curtain to save us.
But there still is an America and a good one. You just won’t find it on the front pages or on the evening news. It is in our communities, our towns and our states and we have to rediscover and build this America from the bottom up.
It can happen, but the first step is to stop listening to an elite that has destroyed our land and disgraced itself, an elite that has rolled into one great cultural tar ball.
So move on, folks, nothing to see here.
From here on out, it’s up to us.