"They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats." Bernie Sanders
Many Americans today reflexively invoke and revere the wisdom of the Founders. At the same time, they remain blissfully unaware - or willfully ignorant - of Thomas Jefferson's views on such subjects as empire and conquest:
"The one principle more deeply rooted than any other in the mind of every American is that we should have nothing to do with conquest."
Jefferson's quaint notion was quietly set aside at the start of the 20th century, from which point onward we can trace a straight line between America's economic interests and the subjugation of peoples around the world.
The American century dawned as the United States fulfilled its manifest destiny by its westward march across the continent. The U.S. economy at that time under President McKinley was soaring as a result of America's victory over Spain in the war of 1898, in which it had annexed several foreign colonies including the Philippines, Guam, Pago Pago, Wake and Midway islands, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, and asserted practical control over Cuba. In the case of Cuba, as Stone and Kuznick have noted in their exceptional video series:
American businessmen swept in, grabbing assets where they could, essentially making Cuba into a protectorate. United Fruit Company locked up two million acres of land for sugar production. By 1901, Bethlehem Steel and other U.S. businesses owned over 80 percent of Cuban minerals.
America's growing and increasingly powerful capitalist class had successfully set the terms of debate around the issues of consumption and wealth distribution in the country - there would be a bigger pie for all when the U.S. dominated world trade so that foreigners would absorb America's growing production surplus. The goal of these foreign interventions for the new business elite was profit, exemplified by the grand wealth of New York City's The Four Hundred. As Stone and Kuznick noted, "U.S. Marines were repeatedly sent in to protect U.S. business interests in what were now called 'Banana Republics,' considered backward and in need of strong rule by sometimes brutal dictators able to force U.S. business interests on the workers and a resistant peasantry," as this list of intervention and conquest makes clear:
Cuba (1906 - 09, 1912, 1917 - 33), Honduras (1911, 1912, 1924, 1925), Nicaragua (1907, 1910, 1912 - 33), the Dominican Republic (1903, 1914, 1916 - 24), Haiti (1914 - 33), Panama (1908, 1912, 1918 - 20, 1921, 1925), Guatemala (1920), Mexico (1914). American occupations lasted for years, sometimes for decades.
The realities of this first stage of the American empire are vividly captured in Marine Major General Smedley Butler's plain-spoken accountWar Is a Racket, in which he lays bare some hard truths: "...fortunes would be made. Millions and billions of dollars would be piled up. By a few. Munitions makers. Bankers. Ship builders. Manufacturers. Meat packers. Speculators."
"I spent 33 years and 4 months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks, from Second Lieutenant to Major General, and during that period I spent most of time being a high-class muscle man for big business, or Wall Street, or for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. I helped make Mexico - especially Tampico - safe for American oil interests in 1914; I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in; I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909 to 1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China, I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested. During those years, I had, as the boys in the backroom would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel I could have given Al Capone a few hints - the best he could do is operate his racket in three districts; I operated on three continents."
The world clearly had an American oligarch problem in the first years of the 20th century and, as the stakes have continued to rise, its become a far greater danger in the first years of the 21st.
Much has happened in the intervening 100 years, though the business interests of America's munitions makers, bankers, ship builders, manufacturers, meat packers and speculators have remained central to the policies and actions of America's leaders. As we have noted elsewhere on this site, the list of co-conspirators to America's exceptionalism includes the presidency, Congress, the military-industrial-security complex, the liberal class, the U.S.-dominated global financial system, and U.S. foreign allies. But as we've also said, the driving force behind the entire foul enterprise is the unrelenting greed of America's financial elite.
These early thoughts are but a first instalment in a much deeper discussion soon to come on matters related to America's oligarchs - their power to reach and control the levers of public policy and social discourse, and the existential danger they now pose to humanity. An ever-shrinking proportion of the human family is acquiring an ever-growing percentage of the world's wealth and resources. This fact defines our existential danger, and is perfectly captured in a comment by Bernie Sanders; referring to members of the Democratic Party who wish to maintain the status quo, his thought is more broadly applicable to the ultra-rich, and speaks darkly to our fate - "They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats."
On This Page Chris Hedges has written and spoken extensively on the decay of American society. Among his many important books, two in particular - Death of the Liberal Class, and Wages of Rebellion - touch on this Page's central theme. In one of the many excellent interviews of Hedges, he defined the liberal class as those institutions - including the media, the church, cultural institutions, liberal universities, labor unions, and the Democratic Party - which, while sometimes compromising with the power elite, nevertheless provided mechanisms of reform, or "channels of change" within the established democratic structures. They were, he noted, vehicles for discontent whereby the system could readily accommodate incremental change. In Hedges view, this functionality is now lost.
In Hedges view, the death of the liberal class - what we might understand as the conversion of liberal institutions to neoliberalism - can be traced to the co-opting of powerful progressive movements and the intellectual class during World War I. The Robber Barron class was deeply hostile to all these players and, as Hedges quotes Dwight MacDonald, "the war was the rock on which all these movements were broken." (Stone and Kuznick, too, provide a compelling narrative on this subject.) This period is notable for the emergence of "public opinion" and "manufactured consent," in which the public was moved to embrace the government's views through the broad application of mass propaganda based on the excitement of emotion at the expense of fact; it also heralded the first stirrings of America's permanent war economy, succinctly captured by Randolph Bourne's famous dictum "War is the Health of the State." In this period, as Hedges references Laura Nader, America's culture was transformed to become "an imposed corporate culture." And with it began the long slow descent by which the mechanisms of democratic reform were destroyed, and the liberal class succumbed.
At the heart of this descent was the attendant rise of the corporate elite, the one percent, America's oligarchs. Hedges makes reference to Benda and his Treason of the Intellectuals when he says
"for those of us who care about creating a system in which broad participation is open to everyone, you have a choice between two sets of principles you wish to serve - justice and truth, or privilege and power."
He continues by saying, "the more you make concessions to those whose fealty is to privilege and power, the more you diminish the capacity for justice and truth."
This is the dire circumstance in which the United States finds itself today. In the lone post reprised below, Chris Hedges describes an America now ruled by and for the elites. He cites a respected study that details how wealth usurps political power at the expense of the democratic process:
“In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule - at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover … even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.” [Note: This point is most recently confirmed by the overwhelming majorities favouring gun reform following the AR-15 attack of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School - and previous mass shootings at the Sutherland Springs Church and in Las Vegas - to which the NRA-controlled Republican Party has shown utter contempt and intransigence.]
As Hedges writes, "Oligarchs accelerate social, political, cultural and economic collapse. ... They also insist, no matter how bad it gets, on maintaining their opulent and hedonistic lifestyles. ... They flee from the looming chaos into their gated compounds. ... They lose touch with reality."
As they flee the chaos and increasingly lose touch with reality (having obliterated the systems and functioning of government, and society's capacity for justice and truth) America's oligarchs will remain incapable of responding to any substantive issue, such as climate change - the greatest existential crisis to humankind. They would rather go down with the Titanic in their first-class seats.
America's oligarch problem is urgently becoming the world's oligarch problem.
The Deadly Rule of the Oligarchs
by Chris Hedges...
Oligarchic rule, as Aristotle pointed out, is a deviant form of government. Oligarchs care nothing for competency, intelligence, honesty, rationality, self-sacrifice or the common good. They pervert, deform and dismantle systems of power to serve their immediate interests, squandering the future for short-term personal gain. “The true forms of government, therefore, are those in which the one, or the few, or the many, govern with a view to the common interest; but governments that rule with a view to the private interest, whether of the one, of the few or of the many, are perversions,” Aristotle wrote. The classicist Peter L.P. Simpson calls these perversions the “sophistry of oligarchs,” meaning that once oligarchs take power, rational, prudent and thoughtful responses to social, economic and political problems are ignored to feed insatiable greed. The late stage of every civilization is characterized by the sophistry of oligarchs, who ravage the decaying carcass of the state.
These deviant forms of government are defined by common characteristics, most of which Aristotle understood. Oligarchs use power and ruling structures solely for personal advancement.
Oligarchs, though they speak of deconstructing the administrative state, actually increase deficits and the size and power of law enforcement and the military to protect their global business interests and ensure domestic social control. The parts of the state that serve the common good wither in the name of deregulation and austerity. The parts that promote the oligarchs’ power expand in the name of national security, economic growth and law and order.
For example, the oligarchs educate their children in private schools and buy them admissions into elite universities (this is how a mediocre student like Jared Kushner went to Harvard and Donald Trump went to the University of Pennsylvania), so they see no need to fund good public education for the wider population. Oligarchs can pay teams of high-priced lawyers to bail them and their families out of legal trouble. There is no need, in their eyes, to provide funds for legal representation for the poor. When oligarchs do not fly on private jets, they fly in first class, so they permit airlines to fleece and abuse “economy” passengers. They do not use subways, buses or trains, and they slash funds for the maintenance and improvement of these services. Oligarchs have private clinics and private doctors, so they do not want to pay for public health or Medicare. Oligarchs detest the press, which when it works shines a light on their corruption and mendacity, so they buy up and control systems of information and push their critics to the margins of society, something they will accelerate with the abolition of net neutrality.
Oligarchs do not vacation on public beaches or in public parks. They own their own land and estates, where we are not allowed. They see no reason to maintain or fund public parks or protect public land. They hand such land over to other oligarchs to exploit for profit. Oligarchs cynically view laws as mechanisms to legalize their fraud and plunder. They use their lobbyists in the legislative branch of government to author bills that increase and protect their wealth, through the avoidance of taxes and other means. Oligarchs do not allow free and fair elections. They use gerrymandering and campaign contributions to make sure other oligarchs are elected over and over to office. Many run unopposed.
Oligarchs look at regulations to protect the environment or the safety of workers as impediments to profit and abolish them. Oligarchs move industries to Mexico or China to increase their wealth while impoverishing American workers and leaving U.S. cities in ruins. Oligarchs are philistines. They are deaf, dumb and blind to great works of art, reveling in tawdry spectacles, patriotic kitsch and mindless entertainment. They despise artists and intellectuals who promote virtues and self-criticism that conflict with the lust for power, celebrity and wealth. Oligarchs always unleash wars on culture, attacking it as elitist, irrelevant and immoral and cutting its funding. All social services and institutions, such as public housing programs, public parks, meals for the elderly, infrastructure projects, welfare and Social Security, are viewed by oligarchs as a waste of money. These services are gutted or turned over to fellow oligarchs, who harvest them for profit until they are destroyed.
Oligarchs, who do not serve in the military and who ensure their children do not serve in the military, pretend to be great patriots. They attack those who oppose them as anti-American, traitors or agents for a foreign power. They use the language of patriotism to stoke hatred against their critics and to justify their crimes. They see the world in black and white—those who are loyal to them and those who are the enemy. They extent this stunted belief system to foreign affairs. Diplomacy is abandoned for the crude threats and indiscriminate use of force that are the preferred forms of communication of all despots.
There is little dispute that we live in an oligarchic state. The wealthiest 1 percent of America’s families control 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, a statistic similar to what is seen globally: The wealthiest 1 percent of the world’s population owns more than half of the world’s wealth. This wealth translates into political power. The political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern, after examining differences in public opinion across income groups on a wide variety of issues, concluded, “In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover … even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”
Oligarchs accelerate social, political, cultural and economic collapse. The unchecked plunder leads to systems breakdown. The refusal to protect natural resources, or the economic engines that sustain the state, means that poverty becomes the norm and the natural world becomes a toxic wasteland. Basic institutions no longer work. Infrastructure is no longer reliable. Water, air and soil are poisoned. The population is left uneducated, untrained, impoverished, oppressed by organs of internal security and beset by despair. The state eventually goes bankrupt. Oligarchs respond to this steady deterioration by forcing workers to do more for less and launching self-destructive wars in the vain attempt to restore a lost golden age. They also insist, no matter how bad it gets, on maintaining their opulent and hedonistic lifestyles. They further tax the resources of the state, the ecosystem and the population with suicidal demands. They flee from the looming chaos into their gated compounds, modern versions of Versailles or the Forbidden City. They lose touch with reality. In the end, they are overthrown or destroy the state itself. There is no institution left in America that can be called democratic, and thus there is no internal mechanism to prevent a descent into barbarity.
“The political role of corporate power, the corruption of the political and representative processes by the lobbying industry, the expansion of executive power at the expense of constitutional limitations, and the degradation of political dialogue promoted by the media are the basics of the system, not excrescences upon it,” the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin wrote in “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.” “The system would remain in place even if the Democratic Party attained a majority; and should that circumstance arise, the system will set tight limits to unwelcome changes, as if foreshadowed in the timidity of the current Democratic proposals for reform. In the last analysis, the much-lauded stability and conservatism of the American system owe nothing to lofty ideals, and everything to the irrefutable fact that it is shot through with corruption and awash in contributions primarily from wealthy and corporate donors. When a minimum of a million dollars is required of House candidates and elected judges, and when patriotism is for the draft-free to extol and for the ordinary citizen to serve, in such times it is a simple act of bad faith to claim that politics-as-we-now-know-it can miraculously cure the evils which are essential to its very existence.”
The longer we are ruled by oligarchs, the deadlier our predicament becomes, especially since the oligarchs refuse to address climate change, the greatest existential crisis to humankind. The oligarchs have many mechanisms, including wholesale surveillance, to keep us in check. They will stop at nothing to maintain the sophistry of their rule. History may not repeat itself, but it echoes. And if we don’t recognize these echoes and then revolt, we will be herded into the abattoirs that tyrannies set up at the end of their existence.
Written by Chris Hedges, first published in Truthdig, February 11, 2018