Breaking Free of the Stranglehold
Big money has big ambition and a great appetite for power. Evident throughout history, those with colossal wealth have viewed the world as theirs to manipulate and exploit. They understand the power of money and work tirelessly to make sure that its influence is sovereign. The founder of a 19thcentury international banking dynasty, Mayer Amschel Bauer Rothschild, said, “Give me control of a nation’s money and I care not who makes its laws.” In the U.S., the populist movements of the early 20thcentury stood up to the money power that controlled the political system and won reform after reform. A middle class emerged as corruption was brought under control, banking and industry regulations put in place, and the gap between the rich and the poor narrowed. Now, many political observers note that we appear to be right back in the grip of “Robber Baron money politics.”
Today’s capitalism is sometimes called robber baron capitalism, vulture capitalism, or crony capitalism, all implying an unbridled greed that creates collusion between business and government to benefit the well-connected few at the expense of the disunited many
“Robber Baron” was the term used to describe a European aristocrat of the Middle Ages who charged high tolls to people traveling on land or on a waterway that he controlled. The term was also used in the 19thcentury to describe American industrialists who amassed great personal fortunesby exploiting natural resources, paying subsistence wages, corrupting politicians and government officials, and usinganti-competitive/monopolistic business practices.
Today’s capitalism is sometimes called robber baron capitalism, vulture capitalism, or crony capitalism, all implying an unbridled greed that creates collusion between business and government to benefit the well-connected few at the expense of the disunited many. Such complicity pushes through legislation that favors business over consumers and finds ways to veil unethical business practices with legal legitimacy. The colluders are individuals who hunger for huge pieces of the economic pie, who, in fact, think they deserve more than the common folk. Adam Smith, who decried the “concentrated wealth and power” of the 18th century moneyed elite in Britain, wrote in Wealth of Nations, the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind…All for ourselves, and nothing for other people.” The idea that only an elite should rule, set policy, and enjoy grandiose prosperity has been a mostly unbroken line of thought throughout history. Elite rule — whether by monarchs, the church, feudal lords, tyrants, or military dictatorships — has been authoritarian, and rests on the presumption that rule by the few over the lives of the many is inevitable and unquestionable.
Who Owns the Country?
James Madison, called the “Father of the Constitution” for his major role in drafting the Constitution, believed that power must reside with the “responsible men of the nation,” “responsible”meaning possessed of property and wealth. Author and former Republican strategist for Nixon, Kevin Phillips writes in Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Richabout the collusion of the wealthy and those with political power to protect the privileged class even when that compromises the national interest, and typically without any regard for the welfare of the working class. He calls the U.S. a plutocracy where the “fusion of money and government” reigns. America is not a direct democracy with majority votes deciding elections but a republic in which office is won by indirect election or appointment. In fact, writes Paul LeBlanc, professor of history at La Roche College, “… what happened in the early American republic at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was an attempt to fuse democracy (government by the many) with oligarchy (government by the few) in a way that would conserve the power of the wealthy. The key was the notion of representative democracy in which the laboring multitude is represented by figures from the wealthy elite.”
We can give our energies to support the triumph of true democracy, breaking free of the historical stranglehold of oligarchy on the necks of humanity
The President of the Continental Congress, John Jay, who was to become the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, espoused the timeworn elitist doctrine that “The people who own the country [because of the wealth and property] ought to govern it.” About direct democracy, Madison voiced the fear of “mob” rule: “Democracy is the most vile form of government… democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention… incompatible with personal security or the rights of property.”
Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at MIT, political activist, and outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy, says, “Madison was sort of pre-capitalist… And his picture of what the wealthy would do with their power was very different from what they did do. He thought they would be enlightened gentlemen, benevolent philosophers and so on. By the early 1790s, he was already very upset, and he was deploring the depravity of the times. He saw people becoming the tools and tyrants of government, as he put it. They [the wealthy] were using state power for their own ends. That’s not the way it was supposed to work.”
Oligarchy vs. Democracy
In the third century B.C.E., Aristotle recognized the opposition between oligarchy and democracy. If all the power is vested in the oligarchy, the rich minority will create a monopolization not only of wealth but of social and economic opportunity. Over time, as the disparities widen, there arises a widespread dissatisfaction among the poor majority, leading ultimately to rebellion against the ruling elite. On the other hand, if all the power is vested in the people, as in a true democracy, given that they are an overwhelming majority, there will be what was called by Madison the appearance of the “symptoms of a leveling spirit” and the subsequent eroding of property rights of the wealthy minority.
To eliminate the inevitable push by the poor against the hardships they endure in a society of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, Aristotle proposed a relative equality, “moderate and sufficient property” for a large middle class, as “…a government which is composed of the middle class more nearly approximates to democracy than to oligarchy, and is the safest of the imperfect forms of government.” Madison worried that the poor would “secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of [life’s] blessings” and would use their clout in a true democracy to confiscate, i.e., redistribute, the wealth of the nation. This dangerous prospect found solution, for him, in limiting democracy, thus taking care “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” As mentioned above by Chomsky, however, Madison came to realize that “They [the wealthy] were using state power for their own ends.” We are seeing today in this country the widening gap between rich and poor, the increasing disparity of wealth and erosion of the middle class.
Government Founded on Opinion and Force
Many thinkers, philosophers, and social scientists have questioned why the masses have historically accepted being ruled and dominated by a self-serving few. David Hume, the 18th century Scottish historian, economist, and essayist wrote that it is the most surprising thing “to see the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and to observe the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is brought about, we shall find, that as Force is always on the side of the governed [because of their number], the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. ‘Tis therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.”
Chomsky points out the obvious that in addition to a favorable and approving “opinion” as foundation for submitting to governance, force has often been used by those in control and that force has many different modes of operation, the killing weapons of tyranny of course, but in addition, any effective means short of “overt violence that attaches to refusal to submit.”
Manipulating the Masses
One way, short of overt violence, to ensure that the people submit to governance, is to manipulate their opinions, tastes, and behavior patterns. Walter Lippmann, an influential intellectual and political commentator of the 1960s and 70s, wrote “The public must be put in its place”in a democracy “so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.” The idea of controlling the people so as to keep them in place took on structured form with the work of Edward Bernays. In Propaganda(1928), Bernays posited that manipulation of public opinion is necessary in a democracy:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
Bernays was the willing agent of those “who pull the wires,” who employ the crafting of“intelligent manipulation” to control the public mind. He drew on ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, who was profoundly impacted by the brutality of the First World War and, resonating with the general thinking of his time, took a profoundly pessimistic view of human nature, characterizing it with the Latin expression homo homini lupus —man is a wolf to man. Bernays also employed concepts of Ivan Pavlov, most commonly known for his experiments to condition dogs to salivate for food when a bell was rung (Pavlovian conditioning, as an automatic and often subconscious mode of learning, was a theme in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, Brave New World);and ideas on crowd psychology as put forward by Wilfred Trotter. Bernays has been called “the father of public relations,” and that would be an appropriate epithet if his endeavors had really intended to create goodwill between corporations and the public or between the government and the public. But the record shows that his use of propaganda and mind manipulation was for less than noble purposes, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it.” And so he leveraged his expertise “to control and regiment” the masses for his corporate clients which included the tobacco industry and their 1920s campaign to eliminate the social taboo of women smoking in public. He was also heavily involved in the Creel Commission which used propaganda to maneuver the American people into the First World War. And, according to Chomsky, Bernays used his expertise in designing “the public relations effort behind the U.S. backed coup which overthrew the democratic government of Guatemala” in 1954.
Apologia for Social Injustice and Economic Disparity
The ruling elites have always looked for, and found, academic and seeming-scientific justifications for their imperious ways. Countless philosophers, intellectuals, and opinion-makers, like Bernays, have provided the pretext for policies and practices to “control and regiment” the majority. One such source was Ayn Rand who wrote The Fountainhead in 1943 and Atlas Shrugged in 1957. A significant number of individuals on the political right proclaim her greatness and the impact her philosophy of objectivism has had on the unfolding of their lives and public careers. Her creed and the worldview it promulgates would surely be rejected by the vast majority of human beings in that she only recognizes the individual as “real” and rejects any objectivist validity of a shared life, of community, and of altruism. In fact, she viewed altruism as the sacrifice of one’s individuality and, therefore, as destructive and immoral. To her, individualism is cultivated through the “virtue of selfishness” and the only happy life is achieved through “rational self-interest.”
In a 1959 TV interview, journalist Mike Wallace asked Rand,“You say you don’t like the kind of altruism by which we live. You like a certain kind of Ayn Randist selfishness.” Rand answered, “‘Don’t like’ is too weak a word, I consider it evil.” When Ayn Rand declared that“You love only those who deserve it.” Wallace queried,“And then if a man is weak or a woman is weak he is or she is beyond love?” Rand answered, “He certainly does not deserve it. He certainly is beyond it . . . he cannot expect the unearned, neither in love or in money, in matter or in spirit.”
Yet a coterie of Republicans is enamored of Ayn Rand. House budget chairman Paul Ryan credited Randian philosophy as being a guiding force in his life (until he realized in more recent times that Rand’s anti-religion stance was a liability for him politically and he had to distance himself from her); former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan wrote a letter to The New York Times to respond to a critic’s statement that Atlas Shrugged “was written out of hate.” Greenspan wrote, “Atlas Shrugged is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.” Greenspan was a member of Rand’s inner circle of followers in the 1950s. His admiration of Rand became an embarrassment when the financial collapse of 2008 found him testifying before the House Government Reform committee. He said, that “those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.” (Shocked disbelief that corporations would be inclined to act in a sordidly greedy and unethical manner — was he really so naive or was this feigned innocence? Is this not an ironic reminder of Madison’s stupefaction that the wealthy were not acting in enlightened, benevolent ways, that they were using state power for their own selfish objectives?)
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has said, “I tend really to be partial to Ayn Rand, and to The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.” As such, it is reported that he makes every new law clerk watch The Fountainhead. Ronald Reagan was an admirer of Ayn Rand, Glen Beck sings her praises, and Rush Limbaugh has called her brilliant. Senator Rand Paul quotes Ayn Rand at Congressional hearings and his father Ron Paul has said that her novels“tell the truth.” Do they really know what she stands for? “‘Don’t like’ is too weak a word, I consider it [altruism] evil.” And a weak, i.e., poor, sick, needy man or woman does not deserve love or help of any kind.
Brazen Callousness on the Far-Right
We can better understand the brazen callousness of recent GOP policy trending in light of Randian philosophy. Their plans include cancelling food stamps for two million needy Americans, cutting health insurance for children, and gutting programs for the elderly and disabled. Remember during the primary debates, Ron Paul was asked about the theoretical scenario of letting a man without health insurance die and the mostly conservative audience responded with shouts of “Yes!” The New York Times has called the Ryan budget plan “inhumane” and intending to “demolish vital social programs” while at the same time remaining “determined to protect millionaires and defense contractors, no matter the costs to the country.” Those with great wealth manipulate the system to ensure ever-greater guarantees of largess to themselves, all the while sending out their proxies to deflect any blame. Herman Cain during the primaries, superb surrogate that he was, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal:“Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!”
Madison declared that those “without property, or the hope of acquiring it, cannot be expected to sympathize sufficiently with its rights [the rights attached to property and property owners].” We might do better to ask whether the elitist class sympathizes sufficiently with the rights of the “common” people. Do they sympathize with those struggling paycheck to paycheck let alone those who live in desperate conditions? Some years ago, The Modesto Bee, a newspaper in Fresno, California reported on a hearing at the Department of Social Welfare. State officials listened to the heart-wrenching testimonies of poor people struggling to survive. There were stories of the mother of six who fed her family a diet of cat food and rice, of a bug infested slum apartment where the children sleep on the floor and awake each morning with bites on their arms and legs, a family living in a two-room shack with exposed electrical wiring and leaky plumbing who barely survive the winter — do the elites sympathize with the plight of those outside their world of plenty and privilege? Or are the common people air-brushed out of the good image of America, as being those “who persistently avoid either purpose or reason”? In any case, they are doomed to “perish as they should.”
The GOP and Reactionary Populism
Conservatives today employ a double standard in their perception of reformist protest. Tea Party demonstrations were praised, but their view of Occupy Wall Street protest ranged from seeing it as a foolish demonstration by those who should“get a job” and “take a bath” to a movement that is dangerous and radical and looking to “incite class warfare.” Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, has described OWS as “growing mobs” that he is “increasingly concerned” about, and he castigates those politicians who have“condoned the pitting of Americans against Americans.” Like most of his fellow republicans, he sees demonstrations that question the excesses of Wall Street or the raising of taxes on the rich as “class warfare,” but raising of taxes on the middle class and the poor as, well, necessary. Mitt Romney has joined the chorus in portraying OWS as as “dangerous” and as “class warfare.”He said to an OWS protestor, “America is a great nation, because we’re a united nation. And those who are trying to divide the nation, as you’re trying to do here, and as our president is doing, are hurting this country seriously… And if you’ve got a better model — if you think China’s better, or Russia’s better, or Cuba’s better, or North Korea’s better —I’m glad to hear all about it. But you know what? America’s right, and you’re wrong.”
Elites promote a reactionary populism to cunningly trigger patriotic zeal. They have their proxies speak of “taking back the country,” that they – the Republicans, the conservatives, the Tea Party –are the “real Americans,” that the “other side” consists of radicals, socialists, communists, and a President who, according to Newt Gingrich , is “so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” This rhetoric is the agitprop of the wealthy elite who seek to maintain their control. What can it be other than duplicity that animates the efforts to appeal to their followers in such way that those folks repeat the talking points that appear at face value logical and valid but in reality betray their own economic and political interests? Those who champion this right-wing populism have no intention of ever sharing their power or providing for more egalitarian access to education and economic opportunity. In fact, the wealthy elite see the current times as nothing more than an occasion to regain the power and wealth that, in their view, was expropriated by the common people during the decades following the Second World War when the middle class grew with wage increases and programs put in place to strengthen the social safety net.
While the reality of Wall Street greed, corporate treachery, and government complicity is disheartening, we should not dwell on the negative but instead take action to change things for the better. We can remember that every country, analogous to every human being, is a work in progress. There is a long history of courageous and uncompromising movements for political voice, social justice, and economic fairness. In the Qur’an, a phrase which is translated as “freeing the bondman,” is literally in Arabic “freeing the neck.” This phrase holds the general meaning of freeing a human being from any sort of bondage whether actual slavery or political and economic servitude. The same verse pushes aside the oxymoronic Randian/GOP “virtue of selfishness” and sets down the robust and heartful standard of empathy and altruism:
“And what will explain to you the path that is steep? It is freeing the bondman, or the giving of food in a day of privation to the orphan with claims of relationship or to the indigent in the dust. Then will he be of those who believe and enjoin patience, constancy, and self-restraint; and enjoin deeds of kindness and compassion” (Qur’an 90:12-17).
We can give our energies to support the triumph of true democracy, breaking free of the historical stranglehold of oligarchy on the necks of humanity.