Recently, while driving, I caught a snippet of Thom Hartman’s Air America broadcast. Hartman was asking why people don’t seem to believe in paying taxes any longer. He spoke of the state as the tool of the people for providing public goods and taxes as being the price we all pay for these benefits. I thought he sounded somewhat plaintive in his query as to why even progressives seemed to have lost their civic faith. At this point, I arrived at my destination, and so I missed the rest of the discussion. However, his query got me thinking about this issue.
The short answer that came to mind fairly soon was that while other sectors of the population such as conservatives, libertarians, etc. had already lost, or had never possessed, civic faith in government as an agent of progress via its provision of public goods, progressives had always steadfastly championed this belief—that is, until now. The reason for this attitudinal change is straightforward: Seven years of the Bush Administration have transformed our long-held view of government as an agent of the people, to one in which government is the tool of undemocratic, rapacious elites. In this view, government is seen as increasingly oppressive, undemocratic, and the agent of wealth transfer from the toiling many to the unscrupulous few. We’ve seen what happened to New Orleans, we’ve seen bridges and steam pipes crumble, while our government continues to cut taxes cuts for a privileged wealthy few.
It gets worse. For many of us it has become clear that this power elite who represent the multi-national corporations and world finance, have effective control over not only the Bush Administration, not only the Republican party, but the Democratic Party as well. A week doesn’t pass without a fresh example of Congressional Democratic weakness and impotence and ultimate acquiescence to the agenda of this power elite.
In sum, these developments mean that our political system is fatally compromised. We can’t even “vote the bums out.” Under such circumstances maintaining a belief in the legitimacy and efficacy of government is pointless. If the government is illegitimate, and exists to benefit the few over the many, then paying taxes to such an entity is counterproductive. Hence the rapid decline in progressive civic faith—including with respect to taxes—which Hartman decried.
However, the more I pondered this question, the more I sought to probe the deeper forces at work. Here, *as a brief overview*, is what I think has happened and is happening:
For generations in America, rising material affluence based upon rapidly rising energy consumption, allowed for elites to grow in wealth without constraining the ability of ordinary citizens to also become wealthier. Under such circumstances, the political system implicitly incorporated ideals of fairness in income distribution. Reinforcing this ideal, during the Cold War, it was necessary to emphasize these altruistic ideals, in order for market capitalism to prevail in the ideological struggle against Communism. Furthering this end of defeating Communism included both maintaining the belief of the American people in their political and economic system, and convincing others across the planet of its benefits as well.
By the early 1980’s it became clear within elite financial circles that the USSR, despite its still increasing military power, was in severe economic decline. Now capitalism could behave more rapaciously without fear of contributing to Soviet ascendency, as the Soviets were on their way down. Then, unexpectedly, the Cold War suddenly ended.
A global political economy based upon capitalism, though not necessarily democracy, as China exemplifies, came into being. High wage labor in countries like the USA could now be outsourced to a far-flung economic periphery. The resultant economic stress upon the American population could be skillfully exploited to turn people against the idea of government as a provider of public goods. This process began late in the Cold War (the 1980’s) during the Reagan Administration. Taxes to support “big government” were presented as the problem. Tax cuts were the proffered solution. Of course the tax cuts were minimal for ordinary Americans, while being enormous for the most elite. Of course tax cuts for big business were far greater, percentage-wise, than for ordinary Americans. All of these inequalities were obscured by ceaseless propaganda emanating from corporatized media, emphasizing the benefits of these tax cuts for ordinary Americans and for the economy as a whole (“trickle-down economics”). Government was the only possible impediment to corporate dominance, and it had been captured and dismantled—dismantled as an agent for the common good in any event. Of course it was necessary as a tool to control the population at home, and through military power, to control vital resources abroad. Governments possess a monopoly upon the legitimate use of force, coercion, and compulsion, and so there is no better tool for controlling populations.
During this transition, the Clinton Administration came to power. Just as FDR saved capitalism during the Great Depression by grafting elements of socialism into it, so too did Clinton, in an age of corporatist ascendency, attempt to save liberalism—in the sense of government as the provider of essential public goods to the non-wealthy—by accommodating it to the newly empowered corporate and financial elites. Unlike FDR, he failed. These amoral elites simply captured the Democratic Party to be used subsequently as window dressing for “democracy.” To be charitable, this failure may not have been Clinton’s fault. This is because another, far more important factor, the significance of which Clinton seems not to have understood, became increasingly more important throughout the post-Cold War period: declining energy per capita.
Most of the planet’s energy comes from oil. The American and international economies are based upon oil. Discoveries of new oil peaked in 1965 and have fallen precipitously ever since. We are rapidly depleting those oilfields that were discovered and exploited decades ago. As the rate of increase in oil production began to decrease in the late Cold War era, population continued to surge globally. As population increased faster than did oil, energy per capita—per person—for the planet as a whole began to decline. Energy is wealth. More precisely, it is the means to produce wealth. Consequentially, wealth could no longer increase globally, per person.
This presented an existential challenge to the global economy as it is predicated upon endless expansion. However, in an era of globalization, the economy could still continue to expand, for a time, by means of outsourcing production from higher wage nations such as the USA, to lower wage nations such as Mexico and Taiwan, and now China. The surplus created by paying workers less was used by corporate and financial elites as if it were actual new net wealth, which it was not. This was because workers in countries like the USA were being “downsized.” They became poorer.
Elites, aware of ever growing future energy constraints and thus seeing the “handwriting on the wall,” became ever more ruthless, rapacious, and greedy. To conceal the increasing wealth deficit from Americans, national infrastructure—bridges, roads, levees, and so on, was increasingly neglected. Americans lived off of their past investments even as their national infrastructure decayed around them.
To replace the country’s outsourced production economy, a false economy was hallucinated into place based upon real estate, home construction, and trillions of dollars of illusory credit; falsely presented as real money and bundled into even more tenuous financial instruments, which were, in turn, used as collateral for creating ever more of this phantom wealth.
This is where we are now. Global oil production has been flat for nearly three years. Soon, it will begin to decline. Clearly, the mother of all reality checks is imminent. As it is now too late to transition from oil to renewable energy sources, while maintaining any semblance of the global economy we have now, it follows that what is approaching is the worldwide collapse of our political economy.
At the same time, profligate burning of fossil fuels and environmental rapaciousness in pursuit of transitory monetary wealth, have set in motion a global ecological and environmental collapse as well. Just when we need the resources of the Earth the most, they will become least available to us.
How will our government respond to this impending crisis? Bush now can declare a totalitarian state into existence quite *legally* at the drop of a hat. Year by year, he has carefully and methodically put into place enabling legislation, backed by executive orders, for just this purpose. Detention camps for possibly millions have been constructed here in the USA. Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, has received a $385 MILLION dollar contract from the Department of Homeland Security to build and operate them. Supposedly, they are to hold a sudden influx of “illegal aliens.” Who do you think they are really for?
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