If Frenchman Thomas Piketty, for all his brainiac academic wonkiness, has become a U.S. publishing sensation and economics rock star, it's not merely due to his high-profile promoters. Granted, Piketty touters like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz carry high-brow clout (rather justified, given their own economics Nobel Prizes), among both fellow economists and intellectually serious progressives; it's hardly surprising they help set intellectual fashions. But the deeper reason Piketty crossed the Atlantic so well is his timeliness: he had an economic message America's most politically aware citizens were desperately waiting to hear.
Orwell's .1984.--essential companion to Piketty's .Capital.?
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For me (and, I suspect, for millions like me), the translated Piketty message--and I mean translated not just from French to English, but from economics to political activism, is this: your governance is illegitimate, and you now have the go-ahead signal to REVOLT. Not that many of us weren't ready to revolt anyway (Occupy Wall Street, the anti-XL pipeline movement, and the food service workers' strike were among the most prominent foreshocks), but the point is that Piketty gave us a new intellectual legitimacy. All true idealists are at some level truth seekers, and nothing gives us the needed conviction to go overturning the social order (a task people of conscience don't undertake lightly) than indisputable evidence that the current order is illegitimate--a menace to the common good.
Having been irreversibly persuaded ourselves of the need for revolt, we feel free--in good conscience and citing the same evidence that persuaded us--to spread the message of revolt.
Piketty gave us the needed evidence--and as I mean to argue passionately here, Orwell closes the deal. I mean to say the twentieth-century Brit has "crossed the pond" perhaps even better than Piketty, and that we'll fail to grasp the truly sinister implications of Piketty if we don't make Orwell his required intellectual "diet supplement." All modern oligarchic governance must end, in Orwell's unforgettable image, in "a boot stamping on a human face forever." Nothing less is at stake in our call to radical action.
Before proceeding, I wish to make one point of intellectual clarity. Careful readers will perhaps have noted that what I called illegitimate, in light of Piketty, is our governance. Now, I could easily have chosen a more familiar word, like government or system or society, but I fear that in doing so, I would have lost needed precision. Even a qualification like political system might not do the trick. For by governance I mean something wider than government and narrower than society, and wish to avoid (for now) distracting questions about the adequacy or legitimacy of the political system bequeathed to us by this nations' founders. By governance, I means the whole collection of institutions, organizations, laws, and practices that determine how we are actually governed. So in the term, I very much intend to include the media, police and military, political parties, PACs, and other interest groups. Everything variable, in short, that enters the equation of how our nation is governed. It's the final result of that equation--summarized in the word governance-- that's now provably illegitimate.
As I feel no shame (but rather, great pride) in saying, I write as a tribal progressive--NOT as a tribal Democrat. In fact, it's my being a tribal progressive that frees me of the intellectual blinders necessarily entailed by being a tribal Democrat. For no tribal Democrat is intellectually equipped to grasp the illegitimacy of our governance, which is clearly--in a system monopolized by two parties--a bipartisan affair. Not that any sane person would say that both parties share culpability equally; anyone who fails to properly assign greater blame to Republicans has respected, heavyweight constitutional scholars like Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein--writers long noted for their nonpartisan balance and objectivity--to answer to. Their deservedly popular book It's Even Worse than It Looks places the lion's share of the blame for Congressional dysfunction (the piece of the illegitimacy puzzle they deal with) squarely on right-wing extremism. But our governance is scarcely a matter simply of Congress--or of one party. Any thorough analysis of our current illegitimacy would have to include Congressional Democrats, the Supreme Court, President Obama, the "shadow governance" of the Deep State, and the maggot swarms of lobbyists who descend on Washington daily. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. But it's hardly my purpose to sort out in depth the agents responsible for our gravely dysfunctional oligarchy, but rather to spotlight its grievous, jackboot-trampling-face consequences. For, as I intend to prove, oligarchs can ultimately rule us in no other way.
Now, my calling myself a "tribal progressive" is something of a joke, modeled of course on the notion of unthinking, party-line-towing tribal Democrats and Republicans. In fact, I also self-identify as an intellectual and truth seeker, and therefore as someone for whom--as for Orwell--there's something deeply sinister in the notion of a banned or off-limits book. Consequently, I've been known to indulge myself in authors and works whose reputation among the politically correct Left is, to put it mildly, dubious. Hence, I've read with pleasure Friedrich Hayek's Road to Serfdom, a thoughtful and thought-provoking work once favorably reviewed by no less a lefty idol than John Maynard Keynes. And I'm now reading Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man, a work bearing even the sulfurous stench of favorable reviews by adoring neocons. Yet, it's reading Fukuyama that--far from reinforcing my faith in current U.S. governance--has, in conjunction with Piketty, obliterated all sense of its legitimacy. In fact, it's because of Fukuyama (a learned, thoughtful author unfortunate in his associates and admirers--perhaps culpably) that I consider the whole question raised by Picketty as one of legitimacy.
And it's the crucial question of legitimacy--the very heart of governance--that forcefully links Piketty to Orwell.
So here we've reached the heart of my topic. As Fukuyama deeply understands, the very survival of a political system or government depend on its legitimacy in the eyes of enough of its citizens. Crucially, not all of its citizens, indeed not even a majority, but enough citizens wielding the means of force and control to keep the doubters of its legitimacy in line. Hitler, as Fukuyama for example notes, was never elected by a majority, and probably never even freely supported by one. Little matter; the millions of Nazi supporters he did have were able to acquire near-monopoly of the means of force and control in German society, with the lethal consequences known to history. The complacent, misguided souls who cowishly nod their heads to Sinclair Lewis's famous title statement "It Can't Happen Here" probably fail to grasp that fascists' required legitimacy is a minority matter; they certainly fail to grasp that Lewis himself believed it could. The it of course being U.S. fascism--and I believe it's not only possible, but largely in place, and inevitable if we don't soon change course.
Why? This is where Piketty's strongly argued thesis about the nature of capitalism meets the brutal rubber of Orwell's fascist road. See, Piketty's central thesis is that the very nature of capitalism, because rewards to capital owners normally accumulate faster than general economic growth, is to produce oligarchic societies. Unless, says Piketty, extraordinary circumstances or government intervention--like high taxes--bring the rewards to capital in line with everyone else's benefits from the economy. Now, the extraordinary circumstances, like world wars, are hardly desirable, and even depend for much of their effect on giving society a compelling rationale to tax the very rich. But as Piketty is keenly aware, extraordinary circumstances are by definition rare, and barring them, capital-owning oligarchs possess powerful means for thwarting government correctives to natural capitalist inequality. Like, say, buying the governments that would implement those correctives. Which clearly describes our current U.S. predicament--especially after the Supreme Court, itself an oligarchs' plaything, has made buying our government infinitely easier.
So where does Orwell come in? The quick-and-dirty answer is, in vividly detailing the thoroughly modern, technology-based methods by which a tiny minority, hell-bent on exploiting a majority, recruits a critical mass of supporters (only a minority--though of millions--is needed) to keep the exploited majority at bay. In other words, as the word supporters clearly implies, the tiny minority (in our case, capitalist oligarchs) recruits just enough people who believe the exploitative governance of a majority by a capitalist minority is legitimate. And uses those millions of recruits to hold the exploited majority in terror. For once the majority gradually awakens to the illegitimacy of their exploitation by a handful of oligarchs, only a sizable minority (say, millions) of brainwashed or paid-off recruits wielding powerful modern weaponry, can keep the awakening majority from turning on the oligarchs. In other words, only a fascist government--one that recruits by technologies of propaganda and reigns by technologies of terror--can ultimately serve the aims of modern oligarchs.
Now, Piketty's own historic examples might seem to refute the notion of oligarchs needing the modern Orwellian toolkit, but citing such historical counterexamples is shallow, and does not account for the fact that times--and above all, technologies--have changed. The key notion is that Orwellian methods are serving the aims of modern twenty-first century oligarchs, not those of nineteenth century France or England--a golden age for oligarchs Piketty often cites. In fact, today's oligarchs require an economically richer, better-educated populace of servants than their nineteenth century counterparts; and even where they don't strictly require it, such a populace is a fact on the ground they simply have to deal with--and control.
So, for example, even your average Walmart or McDonald's peon needs to be--and in fact is--more literate and economically better off than your average eighteenth-century peon (or factory drudge) pure and simple. While condemning large segments of the population to unthinking drudgery (with no leisure for thoughtful politics) remains a perennial part of the oligarch toolkit, it simply can't play the same role in population control it did when the drudges weren't even allowed to vote. And of course, with legions of the unemployed poor, often replaced by cheaper foreign workers or robots, now having leisure for politics (if not necessarily thoughtful politics), the old-timey oligarch trick of denying the franchise is quickly making a comeback. But sadly for oligarchs, big enough segments of the U.S. population consider this trick illegitimate that it can never come anywhere close to being the chief means of control. So again, this is where Orwell comes in--and even building support for denial of the franchise requires massive Orwellian propaganda. Oligarchs must thank God every day for a critical mass of fearful, resentful racists and xenophobes--which clearly describes much of the Republican Party's base.
Of course, racism and xenophobia are the hardly only Orwellian propaganda tools for recruiting oligarch lapdogs, though it must admitted they have served --and will long continue to serve--Republican oligarchs admirably. Patriotism, especially of the self-interested zero-sum variety where foreigners' agendas and competition for resources and market share make them a threat to "our way of life," has admirably served oligarchs from both parties. This has been especially true of fossil fuel oligarchs, who've successfully brainwashed Americans on the "energy independence" necessity of fossil fuels--even though our nation has been dramatically affected by the global climate harm these outmoded fuels are causing. And fossil-oligarch propaganda is remarkably adaptable; fossil fuels' role as geopolitical muscle can be stressed now that large-scale plans for export prove the energy-independence argument was always hogwash.
But neither propaganda nor force exhaust the control tools in the oligarch toolkit; the fact is, there are certain "oligarch support industries" that have distinct trickle-down benefits. Not that trickle-down economists ever worked in the manner its ideologues proposed; in fact, the successful trickle-down depends on Big Government in a way that would have horrified trickle-down economics' original small-government proponents. Understanding the mechanism involves understanding what I mean by "oligarch support industries"; by and large, I mean the industries, based on force and spying, that either distract attention from oligarchs, or potentially crack skulls on their behalf, once the legitimacy of their governance has been shaken in the eyes of large segments of the population. Offhand, I'd say this constitutes all branches of the U.S. military, mercenaries, and military contractors; government and private surveillance organizations; and police and private security organizations. Now, no one ever went broke serving the needs of the rich; in fact, providing oligarch support industries has become a huge U.S. business sector. But the very hugeness of that sector has swollen well beyond meeting oligarch needs, and can only be attributed to a perverse (perverse because it depends on Big Government) form of trickle-down.
See, precisely because no one ever went broke meeting the needs of the rich--and protecting their sorry asses in case the legitimacy of their governance breaks down is a huge oligarch need--investors in oligarch support industries soon become--if they weren't already--oligarchs themselves. Now, a standard part of Piketty's model is that oligarchs spend a portion of their vast wealth to buy government, in order both to protect and expand their already excessive wealth. Unsurprisingly, oligarchs created by oligarch support industries behave in exactly the same way: they invest heavily in lobbying government to support and expand their industries. Now, since the oligarch support industries in question straddle the public and private sectors, the lobbying successfully expands jobs--essentially, spying and potentially cracking skulls, both inside and outside our government. In no other case I can think of has "trickle-down economics" been so wildly successful. And even without oligarch propaganda, the overly swollen leagues of soldiers, spies, cops, rent-a-cops, and surveillance and weapons manufacturers--by now swollen well beyond the original protection needs of their oligarch employers--have a vested interest in serving oligarchs both inside and outside their industries.