Bear with me as I wander through some disparate threads to try and make sense of the alarming disconnect between who we are as a nation, and who we think we are. It is a difficult path, fraught with obstacles, endless forks and false trail markers, and it exposes some truly ludicrous but deeply cherished assumptions we have made about ourselves.
I've been thinking about the BP spill and the relative power of government and industry. I've been thinking about the fact that a sitting senator can say on tv, unremarkedly, that we no longer have a democracy but an oligarchy. I've been thinking about the finding that AIG apparently did nothing wrong in helping to collapse the global economy, and neither did anyone else (except maybe ACORN). I've been thinking about the ignorant outbursts of our respected politicians and pundits, and the useful myth of the liberal media. I've been thinking quite a bit about American mythology. But mostly I've been thinking about what has gone wrong with our sense of balance.
The complex nature of the topic under discussion will require me to move frequently between three major themes; the events leading up to the Great Recession, the unfolding BP oil catastrophe, and the role of American Exceptionalism in defining events and expectations. It is my strong belief that American mythology has created a miasma of disinformation and denial that is strangling an entire nation, so I think it best to plunge into the undergrowth directly. Any attempt to arrange things in neat boxes would fail to acknowledge that these interconnections are on a collective unconscious level, and their import becomes lost out of context.
A central tenet of democracy is that political power is diffused to prevent the corruption inherent in power consolidation. This is supposed to guarantee that the people exercise control over society at the macro level. While the debate over the balance of power between government branches is ongoing and vigorous, nobody seems to have noticed that the concentration of power in private, megacorporate hands is so hegemonic as to make this debate moot. This is the critical first defense of the oligarchy; to camouflage its influence so as to be held blameless by any torch-wielding mobs when things get ugly. And they always get ugly when an unaccountable cabal becomes too powerful.
We have long had a society where the interests of the economic elite triumph over the interests of the masses, and we have for nearly as long defined this arrangement as "freedom". Over time, this exclusively economic definition of freedom has become preeminent, placing private enterprise and profit making at the absolute center of political power, defined as freedom. The American Dream codifies it, our judgment of all other systems starts from the assumption that ours is the best in existence, and other systems are derided as ideologically dishonest and immoral. Freedom is defined, indeed people are defined by net worth, bank accounts and gaudy possessions. Perversely, freedom is wealth. The wealthier you are, the more you are free. That constant background level of propaganda has become innate in most Americans, and has served our masters well through the years. It helped birth the myth of American Exceptionalism, a belief centered around the idea that America can be excused for foreign policy activites that would be criminal if undertaken by any other country, because America's motives are so obviously pure and good. That myth never really took hold in a lot of places (like Vietnam), but it has had a powerful effect on our national psyche, and a measurably negative effect on our actions domestically and internationally.
But American Exceptionalism has another, more insidious piece; the assumption that the frontier has been tamed, the vagaries of man and nature have been controlled, all true danger has been dealt with, and Pax Americana is upon us and will be endless. The myth credits private enterprise and its mascot, the Rugged Individual TM with these accomplishments. This twist of the fable begets some of the more puzzling American mythologies, truly benighted beliefs like; we have overcome racism and poverty, we have a real safety net for our people to guard against everything from economic woes to natural disasters and crime, that manned Mars flights, flying cars, and cures for cancer are all just around the corner, and that the whole world loves and envies us.
That belief in turn creates an opening for the undoing of all our actual progress toward those laudable goals: If we've already got all those things, why am I paying taxes? We're done, aren't we? It's precisely the message Ronald Reagan hammered into us for eight years, and collectively we lapped it up. We've done our good works; winning WWII, the moon race, the Cold War, and the world's envy. Now gimme mine. Talk about hubris.
Now a new dynamic begins to emerge; shrinking government and surging private enterprise. There has always been an antagonistic relationship between business and democratic government. Private enterprise exists for one purpose only; to generate wealth for its owners; not to "create" jobs, and not to improve people's lives. That is ancillary to the profit motive. Democratic governments exist chiefly to mitigate the inevitable carnage wrought by powerful interests operating purely in their own interests, powerfully. (For background on this dynamic, see "The Logic of the Commons"). A successful, prosperous, capitalist democracy must maintain a balance between these antagonists to survive, but for decades now there has been a grave and determined upsetting of this balance, one that threatens to destroy the system, and it is completely invisible to the vast majority of Americans. Indeed, there is now an overt effort to replace the democratic ethos of government itself with a business ethic. Politicians see no downside in proclaiming they are willing to write all kinds of business-friendly laws, local governments waive taxes and fund stadiums and office parks to lure business, and more. Nobody bothers to explain why big business needs so much special help, if it's such a purely good and awesome thing. Ross Perot, billionaire businessman, made substantial headway as a presidential candidate by promising to run the world's sole superpower like a business. Very few people even pointed out that this position was a) impossible and b) insane. Mr. Perot is likely quite pleased with the modern widespread acceptance of this terrible idea.
Many of the societal goals I listed above are not shared by business interests. An end to poverty is bad for business, because it deprives business of the cheap labor of desperate people, which hurts profits. Pax Americana could be good for some business interests (exporters), but if too successful it could really hurt profits in the arms and defense industries. Occupations are more profitable. Peaceful, prosperous stability is not a good environment for truly big business, despite what you have heard. Look at Goldman's role in Greece's troubles for evidence of that dynamic. The propaganda operations owned by private enterprise have been incredibly successful at worming into every aspect of our culture. There is no real balance anymore between government and big business, and big business in general holds a fundamentally hostile attitude toward government, seeing it as an irritant; gouging profits through taxation and creating unneccessary hurdles with regulation. This meme has been reinforced by every republican and half the democratic politicians since 1980.
The journey from a democracy to a corporate-controlled oligarchy is nearly complete, as measured by actual results. Consider the arc encompassed by the following;
"What's good for GE is good for America" (1946) (business=good)
"Government IS the problem" (1984) (government=bad)
"Shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub" (2000)(government so intrinsically bad it must be euthanized)
Citizen's United SCOTUS decision (2010) (business now owns the electoral process, the last link in the production chain of a corporate state)
It has sunk in.
Government is a hobble on business and citizens. Business is an innately good entity "creating jobs" and "growing our economy". Young people entering the business and entrepreneurial world are steeped in this mythology.
But it is a dangerous lie.
Nobody has ever "given" me a job, or "created" a job for me. I have accepted opportunities to engage in a work contract with business owners and managers who cannot realize their profits without a laborer like me. My work is the instrument of their profits. Likewise, the work I perform adds value to a substance (say oil) or service (say investing) that makes it a commodity for which people are willing to pay. If anyone in this equation is "creating" anything, it is the employee. The employer sets up the system, and takes a piece as payment. I have no intrinsic problem with this, but any child can see the system needs oversight, because the employer has massive incentive to screw the employee (dead rig workers) and the customer (imploded savings). Businesses are not founded to create jobs. Jobs are a necessary part of the raw-materials-to-commodities conduit that we call "growing the economy". They are the last thing added to a growing business, and the first thing cut in a shrinking one. Jobs are a necessary evil to a true capitalist. But as long as American culture reveres every businessperson, no matter how unscrupulous as some sort of philanthropist, we will never confront the reality of this relationship. Marx has been successfully silenced, and so have the labor unions, again despite what you have heard.
Beyond undermining the necessary counterbalancing role of government, the oligarchy has been working diligently to hobble the ability of government to even know what they are up to by pounding the tax-cut, wasteful-government drum for so long, and on so many levels, that there are no longer any resources (read tax revenues) for effective oversight. I think most reasonable people would think it prudent, if we're going to allow
big companies anyone to experiment in the "uncharted waters" of international megafinance and oil exploration, and let them skip any inconvenient planning for mishaps, that we should maintain some sort of first response capability. Maintaining fleets of deepwater submersibles with blowtorch attachments, or roomfuls of financial wizards with supercomputers checking AIG's math might seem obvious in such dangerous situations. Isn't that why we have fire trucks and police forces? This capability has been stripped away along with so much of the always overestimated safety net, yet still useful idiots shriek that they are overtaxed, convinced without any evidence that the government is chock full of waste and the country is awash in welfare queens and "illegals" sucking up tax money. Even while their local schools, fire protection, and basic services of all kinds are gutted by endless rounds of budget cuts forced by the ignorant selfishness exploited by cynical politicians of the (R) persuasion.
We now have a society where industry routinely creates problems that our government cannot fix, from joyriding the economy into a ditch to fouling an entire ocean, and there is no accountability. The government's balancing role has been kneecapped by decades of underfunding and denigration of its role, and the public has been conditioned to cheer this development by decades of storytelling from a privately owned information monopoly. When the inevitable consequences of amoral corporate hegemony trash the economy or the Gulf of Mexico, we are told "changes will be made" to ensure that "this situation never happens again". And then they aren't, and it does. I for one am getting really tired of every catastrophe being about learning lessons that were supposedly learned a century ago. The role of government, the supposed Big Brother, is reduced to either scolding others or acting contrite, with the same rote promises to get better at "X" (where X is almost always "oversight of badly behaving industry"). In other words, it's theater designed for amplification through the media channels owned by a few members of the oligarchy. Y'know, the liberal media.
Goldman Sachs, AIG, and a few other conspirators played chicken with the global economy for private gain, to disastrous effect. BP played fast and loose with safety in an environment that (now they admit) is more difficult than outer space, for private gain, to even more disastrous effect. These cases are quite similar in cause, in perception, and in the lack of corrective action.
The root cause of both the Great Recession and the Gulf catastrophe is unbridled greed. The Masters of the Universe could create fairytale investment devices so they did. BP could get at that motherlode of oil, so they did. Safety rules could be subverted, changed, and ignored, so they were. Railing against these actors for their recklessness is foolish, because they exist to realize profit for their owners, and there is no penalty for malfeasance. Risk does not enter the calculations, so this behavior is inevitable. Any executive not taking advantage of this environment would be guilty of corporate malpractice.
None of this is unique to BP, or the financial industry. Here's another American proverb; "If you're not cheating, you're not trying". That is a fundamentally corrupt, greedy sentiment. Greed is also at work in the stubborn refusal of the men in charge of the the corporations to be forthcoming with information that may help in mitigating the damage they have done. In the case of Wall St, the creation of opaque financial "products" coupled with bogus balance sheets, predatory loans, and corrupt ratings practices to create a private world that was closed to effective scrutiny. For BP, everything about the catastrophe they created is "proprietary", from how much oil is gushing to the chemical makeup of the dispersants, video footage of the eruption, and now even where reporters are allowed to go, including nominally public property. In both cases, the bad behavior became far more destructive because of the careful groundwork of weakening government oversight with popular support, and diligent obstruction of justice once caught.
Managing public perception of greed-induced disasters is critical, of course, and the corporate media monopoly has been wildly effective at this task. In both cases, we have witnessed an arc of blame that begins with the passive "mistakes were made" thesis. When this proves too big a whopper, blaming the victim is employed. When that fails to quiet dissent, the government is scapegoated. This is the trump card - years of conditioned anti-government response kick in, and the lack of oversight is plain to see.
Government is similarly barred from taking corrective action after the fact. This is where the long practice of buying political favors pays its real dividends. The tailoring of laws to the specifications of those buying influence was SOP under Cheney, was clearly on display with HIR and financial regulation, and will follow the same path with energy legislation. Corrective action is watered down and/or loaded with loopholes, and no systemic fixes like ending Too Big To Fail or putting a permanent end to deepwater oil drilling are even considered. In the event of any public backlash, the media help the obliging politicians avoid accountability by underreporting, misreporting, or playing on the "my team vs your team" vulnerability of our two party system.
If you have been following the evolution of the tv coverage of the BP gusher, you may have noticed an upswing in the outrage after a month. Leave aside the spectacular failure of imagination displayed when none of these righteously indignant talking heads or their wunderkind producers could envision this reality on April 20, or that it took a movie of the gusher (fought tooth and nail by BP; it's private property) to get the outrage going. Chris Matthews wondering aloud why the government doesn't take control of the BP mess and send scuba divers with blowtorches to fix the leak may be stunningly ignorant, but it is a normal reaction, a cultured reaction. Matthews, like most Americans, believes in broad brush American Exceptionalism. American Can-Do Knowhow is limitless, isn't it? So the only remaining excuse is incompetence. Government incompetence. Business is never incompetent or inefficient (or they wouldn't be in business, right?). Embedded in this unexamined bit of doublethink is merely one more monstrous example of the same pattern; the privatization of reward and the socialization of harm. It is the Logic of the Commons writ large but still invisible to most. No matter the outcome of the gulf disaster, there will be no serious discussion of the root cause - corporate power unrestrained.
What needs to be laid bare by these calamities is the damage caused by the pervasive and unfounded assumption that we have a government that can protect us from all threats, be they natural like flu bugs and hurricanes or man made like the Great Recession and the Gulf Gusher, and can do so more cheaply and efficiently if we give more of that capacity to private entrepreneurs.
Consider the well-worn phrase "we can put a man on the moon, but..." meaning that there is no acceptable reason for any thingamajig not to work perfectly, and easily. Never mind that the moon landings were a technological achievement under government auspices. And definitely never mind that we need to point to a forty year old achievement because more recent examples are...somewhat lacking. That's a common symptom in end-stage Empirism. We are exhibiting many others. Our overstretched military, internal corruption and decaying infrastructure come immediately to mind. So if you are one of those who is truly unhappy with being an empire, you can take heart. We won't be one for too much longer.
Let's take a look at America the Empire, and the collective denial required to maintain that empire while still believing in our own benevolence.
Whether we like the moniker or not, the US has effectively been an empire at least since the close of World War 2. The ruins of Europe and Asia, as well as the challenge posed by the rising Soviet Union, thrust the US into a position of global dominance. Since we were seen as the key to victory in that war, and we were willing to bankroll the European rebuilding via the Marshall Plan, we were at first welcomed into this role. We're still awfully proud of that, though it's worn off for our allies. The easy division of the world into "ours" and "theirs" (we called it "free" and "communist") made oversimplification seductive, and provided justification for frequent covert and overt military interventions around the globe. That's what empires do, and we embraced the role in spite of our avowed reluctance. Why would that be? Well, remember that economic definition of freedom? If you want your freedom, then we have to keep the trade routes open, like all the empires before us. Besides, there's a Villian out there, and if we don't "Fight 'Em There"... Not coincidentally, this works out wonderfully for the merchant class, with so much less expense involved in getting goods to market.
We have demonstrated a history of this type of hypocrisy, from the near extermination of the Native Americans to the institution of slavery. Both were economically driven atrocities, and helped position us to become a true global empire in the 20th Century. Through it all, we have insisted that we are the Land of The Free, a Melting Pot, a Peace Loving Nation, and all the rest. Our actions show otherwise, but this narrative has persisted. One of the convenient side effects of American Exceptionalism is it blunts some awkward questions.
If you have kids, you put the things you don't want them getting into up on a high shelf, out of reach. You decide what is off-limits, and how to keep those things away from your kids. You also likely told your kids a few fairy tales, because it can be cruel to be too blunt about some things with children. Lucky for your kids that you love them and truly have their best interests in mind, because there is no balance of power between you and your kids.
Our system was designed for government to be the parent in this arrangement, but multinational megacorporations have usurped that power. Multinational Megacorporations don't love government, they don't love America, and they don't love you.