Yves here. I have some quibbles with Gaius’s piece. First, the disdain of upper classes for lower classes is hardly unique to capitalism. This was a feature of ancient Greece and Rome, of feudalism, and landed aristocracy in England which slowly lost out to the rising bougeoisie during the Industrial Revolution. You see it, for instance, in a prettied up form in Shakespeare, in comic scenes where the low status characters are the butt of jokes, often for their mangling of English.
Second, there are versions of capitalism where the elites do not become as distant from everyone else, due in large measure to different social priorities. Japan has long recognized that in a market system where people need to sell their labor as a condition of survival, not having enough work to go around is destabilizing. Entrepreneurs in Japan are revered for creating jobs, not for getting rich. In Japan’s post bubble years, executives and top managers took pay cuts to preserve employment. The gap between entry level and top level pay, which was never as large as in US companies, narrowed further.
Gaius is correct, however, that in late-stage capitalism, American-style, the gap between the rich and everyone else has grown so wide that the rich deal do not live in remotely the same realm. They fly in private jets, They summer at second or third homes. They have servants do what most people have to do in part or in full for themselves, like cook, clean, run errands, shop, raise their kids.
In The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi described long form how market systems ground up social orders, and reformers would manage to impede that process enough to make the pace of change tolerable, if not still painful for many. For instance, we’ve repeatedly pointed out, the average wage for ordinary people fell during the first two generations of the Industrial Revolution in England.
By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. GP article archive here. Originally published at DownWithTyranny
Capitalism is an economic system that encourages people to act from the most pathological individual motives and promises the best social outcome.
Noam Chomsky said that our current ideology is producing a nation, a world, of psychopaths. From an interview with Rob Kall:
R.K.: Okay, so you have written and I am going to quote you here,
“if you care about other people that’s now a very dangerous idea. If you care about other people you might try to organize or to undermine power and authority. That’s not going to happen if you care only about yourself. Maybe you can become rich, you don’t care whether other people’s kids can go to school or afford food to eat or things like that. In the United States that’s called libertarian for some wild reason. I mean it’s actually highly authoritarian but that doctrine is extremely important for power systems as a way of atomizing and undermining the public.”
Now, since we last spoke I have been doing a series of articles on psychopathy, psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists and it sure sounds like you’re describing them when you describe people who don’t care.
N.C.: Well there is a huge propaganda effort that we are all aware of to try to turn people into psychopaths who don’t care about anyone but themselves. That’s not new actually. They go back a hundred and fifty years, the early days of industrialization in the United States. Working people were bitterly condemning the industrial system that was being imposed, the way it was taking away their freedom, and one of the things they condemned is what they called the new spirit of the age– ‘Gain wealth forgetting all but self,’– Exactly what you’re describing. That’s a hundred and fifty years ago and ever since then there have been enormous efforts to drive these sociopathic attitudes into people’s heads. [emphasis added]
About this, Chris Hedges adds from his personal experience:
At the age of 10 I was sent as a scholarship student to a boarding school for the uber-rich in Massachusetts. I lived among the wealthiest Americans for the next eight years. I listened to their prejudices and saw their cloying sense of entitlement. They insisted they were privileged and wealthy because they were smarter and more talented. They had a sneering disdain for those ranked below them in material and social status, even the merely rich. Most of the uber-rich lacked the capacity for empathy and compassion. They formed elite cliques that hazed, bullied and taunted any nonconformist who defied or did not fit into their self-adulatory universe.
It was impossible to build a friendship with most of the sons of the uber-rich. Friendship for them was defined by “what’s in it for me?” They were surrounded from the moment they came out of the womb by people catering to their desires and needs. They were incapable of reaching out to others in distress—whatever petty whim or problem they had at the moment dominated their universe and took precedence over the suffering of others, even those within their own families. They knew only how to take. They could not give. They were deformed and deeply unhappy people in the grip of an unquenchable narcissism.
I would take statements like that last one literally. We’re ruled by people “deformed and in the grip of an unquenchable narcissism.” Note: This isn’t just Trump he’s talking about.
Corporations As Force-Extenders for the Pathology of the Rich
Hedges’ observation certainly explains why executives at the Ford Motor Company would use a cost-benefit analysis to decide how much safety to put into the Ford Pinto, a car prone to explode from a simple rear-end collision. As one law student at Wake Forest University bloodlessly put it, “Should a risk/benefit analysis be used in situations where a defect in design or manufacturing could lead to death or seriously bodily harm, such as in the Ford Pinto situation?”
That cost-benefit analysis goes like this: Which is more expensive, to settle lawsuits resulting from death claims, or to upgrade the product so fewer people are killed? Human executives at Ford weighed the options and chose to settle the death claims instead.
See what I mean? Psychopaths.
Hedges generalizes the situation this way: “It is essential to understand the pathologies of the uber-rich. They have seized total political power.” He goes on to characterize rule by the super-rich as observed by such varied writers as Aristotle, Sheldon Wolin and C. Wright Mills. “Once the uber-rich take over, Aristotle writes, the only options are tyranny and revolution. They do not know how to nurture or build. They know only how to feed their bottomless greed.”
Keep “tyranny or revolution” in mind; we’ll come back to it.
In today’s world the wealth-producing engine of the super-rich is corporate capitalism. As I wrote some years ago, big corporations loot the wealth of the world so their true owners, the CEO class, can loot their corporations and buy anything else on earth they want or need. When only the rich have money, the whole of the rest of the world is always for sale.
Now that the super-rich have bought the U.S. political system, the last piece, their last lock on power, is in place. Tyranny or rebellion: if the political system can’t be recaptured in an orderly, electoral way, nothing but withdrawal of the “consent of the governed” can change course we’re on.
The Ubiquity of Assassination
Which leaves us where? Not in a good place. For another example of rule by psychopaths, consider the Khashoggi murder, but from a different perspective:
Tech executives withdrew in scores from a high-profile Saudi investment summit amid the uproar over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — but top Silicon Valley companies show no signs they plan to unwind their lucrative business ties with the country.
The oil-rich kingdom, with its long history of human rights violations, is the single largest funding source for U.S. startups — and a financial pipeline for companies like Uber, Twitter and Tesla.
It’s not just the Trumps of the world that live by death. Our liberal gods as well are steeped in blood (including the blood of cheered-on, murderous intent). The pathological desire to murder to gain wealth, to kill to retain power, is everywhere we look. To quote an old commercial, we’re soaking in it.
The Pathology of the Climate “Debate”
Which brings us round at last to the climate catastrophe we’re about to face, the single greatest world-historical issue in the world. As Dave Roberts pointed out here, climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation are not the same, either morally or in their results.
Mitigation is a collective and widespread effort by a society to lessen climate damage by collectively addressing the causes. Where will the money come from? The society as a whole.
Adaptation, on the other hand, is intensely local: What one town or state will need to adapt to climate disasters will be different, and differently expensive, than what another town or state will need. Where will the money come from? That too will be local.
A program of mitigation is collective and deeply moral; also deeply effective, to the extent that good choices are made, since the force of the tsunami itself, as it were, is lessened. A program of adaptation-only, however, is a program of abandonment, a program of “each to his own and look out below.”
Needless to say, we’re on the path of adaptation only, of not really acting until disaster is at the door, and have been for decades. And when the moment occurs when the waters do rise, the super-rich will only protect themselves, the poor being left to fend as best they can. “Who gives a crap about some imbecile?” said the CEO of Home Depot about anyone not like him. You can see this attitude as well in the discussions they have amongst only themselves.
Rule by psychopaths takes us to this place. So long as we’re frozen to inaction on our twin disasters, climate and wealth, this is what waits for us. We’re ruled by these people until we choose not to be, or events overtake us all.
Exxon On the IPCC Report
But let’s not close on that somber note. Let’s close instead with a humorous quote, with Exxon’s response to the latest IPCC report:
ExxonMobil CEO Depressed After Realizing Earth Could End Before They Finish Extracting All The Oil
…”Just think, one day soon, we’ll all be gone and that oil will still be there in the Earth, never to be removed, [said CEO Darren Woods]. It’s a travesty.” At press time, Woods announced ExxonMobil’s plans to quadruple its oil production in an effort to extract it all from the Earth while there was still time.
Ok, that was the Onion, but they’re never really wrong, are they?