Thursday, December 4, 2008

The conundrum of extreme wealth

I often find myself puzzling about why the general public, including many in journalism and academia who should know better, have such a hard time noticing that the plutocracy is in the process of dismantling the US and the rest of the world's economy and condemning the world to generations of poverty, disease, despair, death and decay.  An objective look at the predictable effects of extreme wealth concentration, neglect of basic services, education, agricultural fertility, ecological destruction and induced stupidity by means of mass media manipulation, indicates that we are nearing the bottom of a deep hole with no hope of climbing out any generation soon.  Historically the current phase of world civilization resembles most the period when Europe was headed into the Dark Ages.  Some perceptive academics have caught on, but very, very few.  The only candid portrayal of the situation being the one presented by Jane Jacobs in her last book, Dark Age Ahead (

Then it came to me this morning while doing the washing.  We have a pervasive fundamentalist belief that is so strongly held across the world that no one is really aware of its blinding effect.  It is a religious belief in Progress.  People find it impossible to believe that we could be led deliberately into decline. Something like this happened toward the end of the Roman Empire.  Pax Romana was such an amazing success, on a scale, in terms of general improvement of standards of living and personal security, comparable to the Industrial Revolution, that even as the institutions of the Roman state were becoming hollow caricatures of themselves, even as banditry, pestilence and war were depopulating large swaths of the Empire, even as barbarian tribes were routinely sacking great Roman cities, the general population continued to believe in the glory of Roman civilization.  Then, as now, the vested interests of a very narrow, hyper-wealthy segment of the Roman citizenship, were working actively against the interests of the general population as they savaged the machinery of the empire in the process of concentrating their personal wealth at the expense of everyone else.

These days it is nearly impossible to read any progressive screed without encountering advice about what we need to do, as a world wide society, to ward off climate destruction, bring the population explosion under control, improve the lives of the poor and bring an end to war.  The brilliance of many of these proposals is startling and the conclusion, that at least I come to, is that saving the world is not a technical problem.  It is a political problem.  It is a problem of concentrated power that, in every instance, is working against positive change and for a regression to a feudalistic form of order, euphemistically referred to in the inner sanctums of power as the New World Order.

Great wealth and power seems to have the effect of transforming otherwise well educated and modern people into stone cold troglodytes content to see the rest of humanity suffer in the extreme in order to glorify their unopposed dominance.  The spiritual decay induced by wealth was hinted at in the biblical parable of the camel and the eye of the needle. Our fortune lies not in our stars but in our hearts, and in our quest of avarice we abandon hope in the future in favor of the coin of the present.

The single most powerful predictor of a societies health and longevity is economic equality.  Though pockets of equality still exist, generally secondary, as with Western Europe, to their ability to parasitize the third world economies, the overall, worldwide reality is of rapidly increasing inequality and the emergence of mass abject poverty.  The dominant reality, in our age of splendid achievements and excesses for the few, is of an accelerating downhill course that is headed for the edge of a steep cliff, and no realistic possibility of a reversal of this trend is easily imagined.

A Short History of Progress is a book-length essay by Ronald Wright published in 2004.  In this insightful, and I think little appreciated study, Wright contemplates just what I am talking about here.  I highly recommend it for any thoughtful reader.  He lays out in a concise and scholarly way the facts of past misadventures of civilization, their paths to eventual collapse and the lost opportunities that could have saved them from destruction.  But I guess, not surprisingly for the author of a popular book, he ends up challenging us to not make the same mistakes.  He, like all the progressive thinkers, prescribes a choice of intelligent innovations that can save us from falling off the cliff.  But of course the real situation is not that we lack the ability to make intelligent choices, it is who is making the intelligent choices.  The troglodytes of extreme wealth may be primitive in their mental stance, but they are far from being unintelligent.  For greatly concentrated power the intelligent choice, the best service of self interest, is the promotion of a general decay that leaves them high and dry, secure in their castles defended by their armored knights and supremely superior to the groveling rabble at the gates.  The primitive human animal lusts for the adoration of a court and impunity of action.  Once you  have nearly everything the only thing left is to see that no one else has anything at all.


troutsky said...

First,Herb, I owe you an apology. I was bad mouthing you for using email instead of blog format for discussion.Lets make an effort to get everyone comfortable with this so we can hear from all Wobs(and others).

As to the post, I agree in part witht the "collapse of empires" narrative, such as Jarred Diamonds' work and that which you cited. I also agree our greatest problem is political, or the hollowing out of politics as such, and that therin the solution lies.

Where our analysis differs is that I think when you try to identify these "plutocrats" and "stone-cold troglodytes" you lapse into a distinctly anti-political narrative that limits possibilities for change. The "creative conflict" of antagonistic interests vying politically for power gets turned into a friend or foe emotional conflict which inevitably (and historically) leads to endless cycles of violence. We pick out our enemies based on subjective criteria and annihilate them to solve our problem. Is this where we want to go?Past revolutions based on this model were less than glorious.

I think that by taking a more dialectical approach and looking at structural cause we see that "rich people" are just like me or you in more ways that we care to admit and that just graduating from Harvard business school people arent turned anti-humanist.If we are ruled, it is because we give our tacit permission a hundred times each day, with every purchase we make, every morning we go to work.What I'm tring to say is that while everybody may hate rich people, everybody wants to be one.(in the capitalist system)

I believe a truly political approach is to insist on the democracy which everyone claims to value,but which is as yet unrealized.A popular movement to extend the democratic revolution (something they didn't have in the Dark Ages or Rome)doesn't discard class analysis, but builds on it recognizing each individual is a set of identities and interests. (ethnic, gender, culture). Of course this radical democracy cannot co-exist with the capitalism of today, which as you point out is rife with disparity and privilege.

The demands I laid out in the last post are at their heart demands for democracy, people having a say in managing their health care system, a say in what a dignified retirement would look like, a say in what development should look like and their "say" would have power in a political sense.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dave,
It is nice to have someone so articulate to disagree with me. Thank you.


troutsky said...

Likewise Herb. I wish more of our comrades had more time to join the fray!

Anonymous said...

It is probably not just time. Visiting a blog on a regular basis is a hard habit to form. I would suggest announcing new posts on the list serv with the url. And there are the various obstacles that can pop up. I for instance, was not being able to find the sign in link. Turns out that the bar at the top spreads off the screen if you enlarge the text to a readable size on a small screen such as mine. Silly mistake, I know, but the sort of human error that we are all prone to at times.