An Elite Culture of Hostility


An elite culture of hostility toward the people is rising in the U.S. This elite is not just a plutocracy but, increasingly, an insecure and vengeful plutocracy that views popular participation in the democratic process, at home or abroad, as the primary enemy. This paranoid elite mindset is laying the foundations for dictatorship.

From the Patriot Act, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo pre-trial torture, wars for profit, destroying the careers of honest Federal officials who oppose contract fraud, and drone attacks on unidentified civilians to bailouts of billionaires and “stay out of jail” cards for Wall St. CEOs despite prima facie evidence of fraudulent behavior to the vicious pre-trial torture of individual Americans guilty of embarrassing top officials, we are witnessing the rise of an elite culture based on self-defense against the people. The members of the elite who buy into this culture all agree that it is in their common private interest to treat the people as the enemy. Whether the president or Wall St. banker or arms corporation CEO happens to label himself Republican. Democrat, or apolitical businessman is becoming increasingly irrelevant: the elite is adopting a garrison state perspective that labels all debate, all independent thought as proof of treachery.

This culture of dictatorship rests on a foundation of private wealth used for public power: a few CEOs from the arenas of finance, energy, and war profiteering who specialize in transferring social wealth into their own hands for subsequent transfer to their political lackeys. Once bought and paid, the political lackeys pass the laws required for the protection of the CEOs’ wealth transfer scam. Do independent commissions write the implementing rules governing how Wall St. is regulated? No, bureaucrats supported by representatives from Wall St. write those critical implementing rules. Do independent commissions decide if NSA should be permitted to engage in domestic spying? No, a highly secretive internal government body does. Class war by the rich, immunity from prosecution for the powerful, and secrecy are the legs on which dictatorship stands.

We may differ on which politician is most guilty, we may differ on whether or not any specific official personally desires to institute a dictatorship. Regardless of the answer, the rise of this defensive, anti-popular elite culture is promoting the consolidation of a single elite committed to its own perpetuation and determined to fight to the death against popular participation in the democratic process. Just as dictatorship has a critical core, so does democracy. The legs of democracy are transparency and public accountability. Transparency does not mean the transparency of what you do in your bedroom or write in your emails but what officials do in their offices. Unlike officials who seem suddenly, in our post-9/11 world, to have become addicted to pre-trial torture, for citizens in a democracy, “public accountability” means bringing the powerful to court to defend themselves. [Why do I feel it necessary to spell out something so obvious?!? Did we not all learn this in high school?]

The dynamic powering the transfer from democracy to dictatorship is, in a word, that “power corrupts.” The more power is acquired via ill-gotten and hidden pathways, the harder those abusing power will try to cover up, until they reach the point where they can only protect their personal careers by outright dictatorship…by which point they may well have the power to do so. Whatever lies in the hearts of our current officials, sooner or later this mindset of hostility toward the public (first, the public in a few Muslim states and now only a few years later also the American public) will be exploited by a leader to build what we will all recognize as a dictatorship…unless we change the elite culture of hostility.


On the other hand…

Bipartisan senatorial critique of NSA domestic spying by Leahy, Udall, Frankin, Grassley supports transparency in government.

Senator Leahy statement on NSA domestic spying:

Today, the Judiciary Committee will scrutinize government surveillance programs conducted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.  In the years since September 11th, Congress has repeatedly expanded the scope of FISA, and given the Government sweeping new powers to collect information on law-abiding Americans – and we must carefully consider now whether those laws have gone too far.

Last month, many Americans learned for the first time that one of these authorities – Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act – has for years been secretly interpreted to authorize the collection of Americans’ phone records on an unprecedented scale….

In the wake of these leaks, the President said that this is an opportunity to have an open and thoughtful debate about these issues.  I welcome that statement, because this is a debate that several of us on this Committee have been trying to have for years.  And if we are going to have the debate that the President called for, the executive branch must be a full partner.  We need straightforward answers and I am concerned that we are not getting them….

Just recently, the Director of National Intelligence acknowledged that he provided false testimony about the NSA surveillance programs during a Senate hearing in March….

The patience and trust of the American people is starting to wear thin….

The Government is already collecting data on millions of innocent Americans on a daily basis, based on a secret legal interpretation of a statute that does not on its face appear to authorize this type of bulk collection.  What will be next?  And when is enough, enough?

Congress must carefully consider the powerful surveillance tools that we grant to the Government, and ensure that there is stringent oversight, accountability, and transparency.

Congressional coalition opposes domestic spying –

A stunning bipartisan group of 205 Congressmen voted to slap down the Administration and the Republican House leadership over NSA domestic spying. Advocates of continued nearly unrestrained domestic spying against citizens not accused of any crimes won a narrow victory that cannot but awaken them to the on-going national outrage over the domestic spying scandal by Intel agencies that have traditionally been barred from domestic activities. The Amash-Conyers bill represents a significant response to the post-9/11 trend, symbolized by the grossly mis-named “Patriot Act” toward abuses of power by an Imperial Presidency that shows little concern for Constitutional guarantees of civil liberties. We should all be grateful to Manning for sacrificing his life in the name of real patriotism.


Big Capital Makes the Case for Socialism

J.P. Morgan and Bank of America just this week illustrated again the need for big, socialist government.

Sometimes government should be small, to allow individual creativity, and sometimes big, to achieve victory over society’s enemies. In just the last few days, two behemoths of capitalism–J.P. Morgan and Bank of America–have made the case, unintentionally, for government not just big but socialist. J.P. Morgan admitted that it was up to all the old Wall St. tricks that created the Financial Crisis of 2008 that stole homes out from under millions of Americans and left millions of others unemployed. Bank of America arrogantly refused stockholders’ calls for it to investigate itself to detect fraudulent foreclosure behavior. A well brought up five-year-old knows enough to think critically about his or her own behavior.

Everyone is of course now having fun at Jamie Dimon’s expense, not that he can’t afford it with his repulsive $25M a year salary, unfortunately eclipsing Bank of America’s sneering attitude toward both stockholders and customers, which may cause even more harm to U.S. society. Unfortunately, the critical rhetoric focuses on the obvious but superficial calls for regulation.

Regulation of the out-of-control financial piracy of Big Capital is a perhaps useful band-aid that may stem the loss of financial blood while we move the U.S. financial system to the hospital, but what the patient needs is either major surgery or to be put out of its misery. Americans need to have a real national debate about the terms of this restructuring but must take care to avoid wasting time; four years have already been wasted, and Romney clearly feels no embarrassment in defending the system that brought us the Financial Crisis, suggesting that he at least feels that enough Americans can be hoodwinked once again to get him into the
White House.

There is perhaps no harm in immediately instituting some obvious regulations:

  • no bank should be permitted to gamble with its own money;
  • derivatives should be regulated with total transparency if not banned entirely; 
  • the revolving door between financial institution management and government positions that facilitates capitalist pirates writing laws to cheat the American people should be slammed shut.

Beyond regulations, new laws would help.

  • Punishments should be made up close and personal for all officials of financial institutions that take government bailouts. All income beyond minimum wage levels obtained (one hardly dares say “earned”) for, say, the five years leading up to any receipt of government welfare or bailouts should be forfeited.
  • The tax code should immediately be reformed to ensure that income tax levels for workers are always lower than capital gains. It is a fundamental moral point that earned income should be taxed less harshly than unearned income: there is a reason it’s called “unearned,” folks!
But all this is just band-aids. The real issue that Americans should be discussing in this election year is how to put the American people back in the driver’s seat and put Big Finance in its place. Our individualist capitalism system may work great on Main Street, but on Wall Street it has become too big to tolerate. In a word, then, to what degree does the U.S. now need to replace capitalism with socialism?

Capitalism or Socialism?

Arguing over “capitalism or socialism, small government or big government” serves only to confuse voters; indeed, that is often the point: when the rich advocate “small” government, they almost always mean “small” for someone else. The banquet of a good lifestyle requires both the salt of capitalism and the pepper of socialism, big government when it helps society, small government otherwise.

The issue we face is deciding when government should be big, when it should be “small,” to what degree the economic system should be capitalist or socialist.  Given an environment of strict regulation and a well educated citizenry, capitalism in certain sectors of the economy can facilitate rapid development by replacing tedious and inefficient government oversight with self-organized popular creativity. But fraud is inherent in a system that allows some to become grossly more powerful than others, as 99% of us have learned to our sorrow since 2007.
Moreover, even the rich would not like pure capitalism. Who wants to pay a toll on every single road? The West had such a system once – in the Middle Ages, where local noblemen and other robbers interrupted trade and travel to line their pockets. Who, except a dictator, would want a capitalist Internet charging a fee every time you surfed or sent an email? Who would want to buy the air they breathe from a local vendor?
Does that last example sound idiotic? Corporations are already trying to steal the planet’s drinking water and then sell it back to the thirsty. This particular abuse of the commons (drinking water, like air, being a “common” good that should be shared by all) provoked a revolution in Bolivia and a bit of a revolt in Atlantaas well. As extremist fans of extreme capitalism undermine government’s power to regulate while corporations take advantage by polluting the air we breathe, the temptation to buy clean, bottled air can only increase. A better way to go for all breathers (even rich ones) would obviously be to defend the commons by keeping the air clean.
Other examples of situations where capitalism seems pretty clearly inappropriate are legion. Extreme capitalism is not even appropriate in that capital of capitalism, Wall Street – it leads to fraud, distortions of fundamentals, and the chaos that requires emergency Big Government of the most extreme type. Even the purest and richest of pure capitalists, it seems, cannot function efficiently without oversight; just ask the boys at AIG and Lehman.
Education provides another example of an area where small government and unrestrained capitalism (in this case, turning education into a private business) risks real harm to the common good. Conservatives love to advocate private schools, but would they appreciate having to send their kids to a private socialist or Salafi school? Once society grants private schools the right to exist, where is the line to be drawn?
Health care is a second misleading example of conservative knee-jerk hostility to government leading to outcomes harmful to themselves as well as everyone else. Why would anyone want a capitalist health care system, with doctors focused on profit rather than helping the sick? Who wants medicine prescribed on the basis of the profit it returns to the doctor rather than the health value for the patient? On the other hand, Big Government-Big Pharma corruption widespread in government-run health care is equally pernicious. Any system can be abused, but the very purposeof capitalist health care is to make money, and the easiest way to do that is to treat only the affluent and to ignore…the sick! The purpose of socialist health care, in contrast, is for society to decide on some minimum level of health care and then provide it to all. The real argument should center not on the size of government involvement in health care but whether the government role protects the public or acts as a cover for Big Pharma greed.
Morally, there is no contest. Socialist principles are indistinguishable from the Declaration of Independence’s call for government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
In practice, the issue is less clear-cut. Even the richest corporate leaders want some socialism: Big Oil happily takes billions in U.S.welfare every year; Big Pharma designs the health care system to maximize profits rather than health care quality; Big Finance warps the U.S. tax code to its private benefit. No billionaire wants pure capitalism.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that social regimes can become both oppressive and inefficient. Moreover, many examples of situations where socialism (i.e., ownership by society) is inappropriate also exist. Public (i.e., socialized) libraries are great as long as the government’s role is restricted to funding and depoliticizing, but who would want the government to decide which books we could read? Public management of the Internet is crucial to its contribution to society, but who would want the government to censor their emails? Government inspectors are critical to a safe food supply, but who would want the government setting their dinner menu?
And then there’s the little matter of physical security. Who wants private armies? The West had that system once, too. It was called feudalism. On the other hand, a state that controls all means of force is an invitation to dictatorship. One possible compromise is to have both central and local powers, with the central government having only those powers explicitly awarded to it. But ultimately security for society must rest on strong government combined with the rule of law, transparency, and popular vigilance…not private enterprise.
It matters little to the victim whether oppression comes at the hands of a corporation or a regime. And yet, a fundamental distinction exists between the worst socialist regime and the worst capitalist system: at least under socialism, the people always have the option of voting. (If a socialist system removes the right to vote or, as in the USSR, rigs the vote, then the system has turned into something else – call it a dictatorship or communism or whatever you want; it is no longer “socialism;” it is no longer rule for society but rule for the rulers.) In a system with a weak regime and powerful, unrestrained corporations, the people have no defense at all. Such a system has surely never existed in modern human history, for the corporations would immediately demand and receive special privileges and transform the system into a Big Government Corporate Welfare System, essentially fascism without brutality, and, indeed, that is precisely the goal of the class war launched by the super-rich in the U.S. Under a Big Government for Corporations system, the people would have no recourse but armed revolt, which would surely provoke a corporate crackdown and the transformation of the system into full-blown fascism.
The problem in the is essentially Big Government that works for Big Capital rather than Society and does so in an atmosphere of unadulterated corporate piracy. There is a fundamental distinction between the corporations of the 1950s that provided lifetime careers at good salaries while they made America rich and the banks that run mortgage mills to make a quick buck off high fees with the intention of selling the mortgage fast enough to avoid responsibility for what happens to the deluded new owner. The rich seem to recognize no common interest between themselves and the society that protects them from foreign aggression or domestic street crime, that paves the roads their limousines use, that buys the product they produce (if, indeed, they still produce anything). Government is indeed “big” and uses its power to hand out corporate welfare on the basis of the size of the corporation rather than the utility of the service that corporation provides to society.
Life is too complicated to be regulated at every point, and people are too vulnerable to be left on their own in a world of enormous institutions. It’s not a matter of capitalism vs. socialism. Rather, the challenge is to balance freedom for individual creativity against the common need for protection. Capitalism with a heavy dose of socialism in sectors critical to the common good works in a strong democracy, enabling economic efficiency to be combined with popular oversight. “Strong democracy,” however, implies the acceptance by all of a social contract that puts government in the hands “of the people.” Room exists for powerful private interests as long as the economic pie is expanding faster than the rate at which power and wealth flow to the most powerful private elements. To the degree that those private power centers seek profit at the expense of the common good, capitalist tendencies need to be curtailed in favor of socialist tendencies; put differently, government power needs to be enhanced for the express purpose of protecting the commons (be it air, water, civil rights, freedom of education, protection against police brutality, clean food, or reliable health care) against abuse by those powerful private interests.
Today in the U.S., conservatives are correct that government is too big: too big when it allows corporate fraud to go unpunished, too big when it allows war profiteers to make billions, too big when it gives welfare to wealthy oil corporations, too big when the police suppress protests against corporate crime). When government tries to regulate and finds itself too weak to control corruption or corporate abuse, then the government is too small. The problem is not the size of the government but in whose interests the government functions. 

Here we go again –