Monday, May 27, 2013

Ontology of Our Kleptocracy

There is a persistent version of how representative government decays that claims electorates elect representatives who best bribe them for their votes. Despite being an even more perfect inversion of the present observable reality, this trope enjoys the same well funded repetition as the barter myth for the origins of money. In fact our representative government has decayed as its entrenched winners discovered the prestige of their wealth allows them to get away with bribing elected officials to eliminate whatever historical laws once constrained them. In this way they further entrench their existing advantages, advantages that yielded up the funds for bribery to begin with. It is a recurring process of decay that ends representative government and, along with it in our case, capitalism. Historically this evolution has lead to popular tyrannies where members of the kleptocratic elite endorse broad populist programs and usurp power from the corrupted institutions of the erstwhile representative system. We may not be so lucky this time as the innovations of modern capitalism have changed the meaning of money and information technology has exponentially increased private control of information flows.

The modern era, by which I mean the period since the industrial revolution, has seen both explosions in human population and in dependence on monetary economics. Both are huge changes but only the former garners popular attention. By and large, agriculture was the economy until quite recently. Folks who would like to see a hard money system, self proclaimed capitalists tend to be fond of this notion, need to explain how they intend to ensure the distribution of money that makes modern post agrarian life possible for most of humanity. Because we now live in urbanized market based economic systems where the great preponderance of the population has no access to the fruits of the land, this issue of the distribution of money is paramount to the survival of people, almost everyone. Without money the expression of demand in markets is impossible: if money is a finite thing, as it was on the gold standard, and if it is subject to the concentrations and even hoardings capitalism periodically conjures, how does one insure the distribution of money necessary for general survival? Economic or otherwise?

The New Deal was a coordinated infrastructure of political economy built to serve this purpose. Interestingly it functioned equally well both on and off of a gold standard. This is because the system was built around the needs of the real economy by people who understood the deep operations of monetary systems well enough to build real constraints on finance adequate to preventing open and concentrated expressions of money power. In addition, the system focused intensely on the distribution of money. You can not have a capitalist market system in the absence of demand, and in a market economy the only mechanism for the expression of demand is the spending of money to make purchases. The New Deal saw to it that the people who worked and through their increasing productivity increased the standard of living of society at large captured an equitable percentage of what productivity gains they brought to the businesses of their employers, and thus had money to spend to express demand.

Beginning about 40 years ago, our corporate elite, as advised by the Powell Memo embarked on a program to restructure the political economy for the benefit of the owners of capital. The memo outlined a broad program with plans for addressing academia, television, other media, journals, journalism and publishing, advertising, politics, the courts, shareholders and anti labor ideology. The collective action problem the New Deal had after fifty some odd years of progressive politics finally tailored institutions to solve came systematically under fire from the concentrated interests of businessmen who had no particular interest in the collective good, who in fact saw that as a constraint on their own interests. The concentrated interests of the wealthy then took each of the points Powell had struck and built new institutions aimed at attacking each of the New Deal structures built around them. It began as an ideological attack on liberalism and has resulted now in a market based political system where only money can express political demands.

This has not been a process of the masses living irresponsibly and voting for public officials to bail them out: quite the opposite it has been a process of elites living increasingly extravagantly irresponsible lives, both in their finance and politics and then paying for the campaigns of public officials who have  bailed them out equally extravagantly. While we hear political insiders like Michael Kinsley talk of sinners who must suffer, they certainly don't mean the financiers, capitalists and their political and judicial cronies who have caused a return to pre New Deal wealth distributions and the associated overall miserable economic performance. They mean the "masses" who in their minds have somehow earned the poverty to which the irresponsible  behavior of finance has consigned them while their anti labor ideology has deprived these victims of income and even the opportunity for it. It has been a deliberate effort elaborately funded by the likes of Peter Peterson, the Koch brothers and most all of the lords of finance. A narrow and dwindling elite has purchased our political system and destroyed therewith our economy and want us to believe it our own fault and that we, not they, have lived irresponsibly.

They have usurped the public air waves by abolishing the "Fairness Doctrine", they have destroyed bargaining power of workers by destroying organized labor, they have corrupted the courts by packing the bench with their ideological cronies, they have de-criminalized the broadest possible array of financial frauds under the rubric of "de-regulation" as if regulation were something other than law, they have made available the public treasury to the looting of high finance, they have instituted a reign of permanent war in which the dissent of any who may become effective can be construed as treason, they have implemented an "intellectual property" regime where copyright never lapses and common rights have been abolished, they have made bribery the essential qualification for both policy "expertise" and electoral suitability. This is not a popular program to subsidize a popular degeneracy: it is an elite policy program to subsidize in every conceivable way an elite without even the slightest pretense of public interest or concern. In fact it is an elite both openly hostile to and exploitative of everyone not a part of it, and increasingly the margins of the elite itself.

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