The majority of communicants of the Church of the Free Market have lost faith in this institution and its rhetoric; but, if history is any guide, it may take a century or more before that results in a new model for organizing society.
After the last three elections, I have given up on the so-called democratic political process in a country that is so obviously completely corrupt, with every political and personal transaction being reduced to cash value, with crooked voting machines, Quisling democrats, and propgandisitic media. Why have I given up pretending this system can be rescued? Because historical precedent says that things will get worse, for a long time, before they get better.
The historical precedent I have in mind is the centuries long decline of the Catholic Church in the 200 years between the Avignon Papacy and the Protestant Reformation. 200 years of manifestly corrupt rule by an organization that made a mockery of its principles in more ways than I can describe in a short essay.
Nevertheless, I will try.
The Plague Years
The Black Plague (1347-48) occurred almost exactly in the middle of the Avignon Papacy (see the appendix for a few words about the total corruption of Christianity that was the Avignon period, and how that relates to today's America.) The Plague wiped out, as best as historians can tell, about 30% of Europeans in two years. Americans lost roughly 40% of their life savings in the 2008 market meltdown, which I call "The Financial Pestilence".
But at least, after the Plague, there were more jobs and property than people. After the Financial Pestilence there were more unemployed people than jobs.
The plague added to the corruption of Avignon in convincing Catholics that their Church was no longer a true Church, capable neither of interceding with God to stop plagues nor of engaging in its historic mission of protecting the poor from the rich. From the plague forward, the Catholic Church was a dead man walking. The Obama administration's response to the Great Heist, coupled with the GOP return to the 14th century's social policies, has convinced most Americans that our government is no longer a real democracy, that it will no longer protect citizens from the rapaciousness of the super rich elites.
America became captive of Wall St. under the Clinton presidency, when former Goldman Sachs CEO, Robert Rubin was allowed to become Secretary of the Treasury. It was under Clinton that Glass-Steagel was repealed, giving carte blanche to Wall St. to loot bank deposits. The captivity deepened under Bush, who castrated the SEC and looked the other way while Greenspan inflated the mortgage bubble. The captivity was complete when Obama appointed a veritable who's who of Goldman Sachs alumni to his administration. There is no doubt among any thinking person that American Democracy has been taken captive by financiers, just as the 14th century papacy was taken captive by the French kings.
Laws to control our economy, to meet out punishment for financial crimes, are now written by Wall Street. Just as the French King used the Papal treasury to finance his wars, Wall St. gets government bailouts to keep it afloat as it loots the world. This week, after a year of Obama browbeating state AGs, Wall St. got a plenary indulgence to escape the punishment from creating the mortgage bubble with malice aforethought.
Just as the debates in the Church changed from matters of theology to factional fights between countries over the spoils of Church revenue, the debates in Congress have changed from matters of Constitutional principle and the good of society to gang fights between corporations over who gets to ripoff the taxpayers. Under Bush, the MIC and the fossil fuel industries got the bulk of the loot. Under Obama, it is Wall St. that gets its ass covered. In neither case are the political and economic needs of the citizens of this former democracy met. In both cases, the citizenry is looked at as a source of revenue.
The effect of this betrayal upon the True Believers in the church of the Free Market has been remarkably similar to the behavior of survivors of the Plague.
Self-flagellation was intended to express remorse and expiate the sins of all...The movement was essentially anti-clerical, for its challenge to the priesthood, the flagellants were taking upon themselves the role of interceders with God for all humanity...Hundreds of bands roamed the land, entering new towns every week, exciting already overwrought emotions, reciting hymns of woe and claims that but for them "all Chirstendom would meet perdition."...Growing in arrogance, they became overt in antagonism to the Church...Opponents were denounced as scorpions and Anti-Christs. Organized in some cases by apostate priests or fanatic dissidents, the flagellants took possession of churches, disrupted services, ridiculed the Eucharist, looted altars, and claimed the power to cast out evil spirits and raise the dead.The Tea Party are the most pathetic excuse imaginable for flagellants - a well-off, Medicare-supported bunch of whiners and poseurs who have sacrificed nothing - but that is the role they play. They claim that their solution, destroying the government (a modern version of anti-clericalism) is the only way to stop the Financial Pestilence. Their arrogant dismissal of reality is worse than the flagellants, because science and scholarship has proven the falseness of their solution. Of course, in favor of the analogy is the fact that they are as delusional, self-harming, and fanatical as their 14th century counterparts.
The self-torturers (soon) found a better victim. In every town they entered, the flagellants rushed for the Jewish quarter, trailed by citizens howling for revenge upon the "poisoners of the wells".
- B. Tuchman, "A Distant Mirror"
The programmatic arc of the Tea Party follows that of the flagellants. Like the flagellants, Tea Partiers and other conservative dupes, after literally denouncing Obama as the anti-Christ (I can't make up these parallels!), have turned upon oppressed minorities in their quest for someone to sacrifice to their perverted concept of "god". Today, we have the deportation pogroms against Hispanics; and the ghettoization of blacks in our massive, privatized, for profit, internal Gulag.
...the Free Companies...were to become the torment of the age. Composed of English, Welch, and Gascons released by the Black Prince, as soldiers customarily were to avoid further payment, they had acquired in the Prince's campaigns a taste for the ease and riches of plunder...The loss of the (French) King and of so many (French) nobles (at the battle of Poitiers) eased their opportunity. In the year after the truce they swelled, merged, organized, and spread, and operated with ever more license. Seizing a castle, they would use it as a stronghold from which to extract tribute from every traveler and raid the countryside...We are stuck in the same vicious cycle as 14th century France. The weakening of moral authority and the state machinery to enforce it has led to rapacious behavior by our own Robber Barons. And, as they continue to destroy the social fabric, lately targeting public education and healthcare, their ripoff privatized services become the only alternative. They become "acceptable"; but they also generate popular hatred for the estate of "businessmen", who increasingly resemble Russian Mafiosi.
They imposed ransoms on prosperous villages and burned the poor ones, robbed abbeys and monasteries of their stores and valuables, pillaged peasants' barns, killed and tortured those who hid their goods or resisted ransom,etc...
The most damaging aspect of the companies was that in the absence of organized armies they fill a need and became accepted...In the anarchy after Poitiers, knights and brigands became interchangeable, bringing added popular hatred upon the estate of the sword.
- B. Tuchman, "A Distant Mirror"
What is ALEC but a pack of brigands, funded by the Koch Brothers. Their goals are made clear by their behavior in Wisconsin. They will grab a state and loot it dry. They will steal any funds they can, crush any organized opposition, and if forced out, they will leave smoldering rubble as a warning to their next victims.
As true faith dwindles in the face of lies and corruption, the rulers are forced to turn to coercion. In the Catholic world of the 14th century, coercion was the Inquisition.
When Gregory IX mounted the papal throne (1227), he found that despite popular, governmental, and episcopal prosecutions, heresy was growing...As the aged pontiff saw the matter, the Church was engaged in a struggle for survival, and was warranted in adopting the morals and measures of a state of war...Shocked at learning that (a bishop) had been converted to Catharism, Gregory appointed a board of inquisitors...to bring heretics to judgment. This was the beginning of the papal inquisition...We are treading the same path, using the same excuses. In our case, it is even more of a lie and a betrayal of our principles than the Catholic Church. The Church really was in mortal peril of losing to genuinely religious alternatives. America has never been threatened with anything more than minor inconvenience by "terrorists". America is under no threat from "Sharia Law" or any other manufactured boogeyman.
Most of (the inquisitors) were men of strict morals, but few had the quality of mercy. They thought of themselves not as judges impartially weighing evidence, but as warriors pursuing the enemies of Christ. Some were careful and conscientious men...some were sadists....
Roman law had permitted the eliciting of confessions by torture. It was not used...in the first twenty years of the papal inquisition; but Innocent IV (1252) authorized it where the judges were convinced of the accused man's guilt, and later pontiffs condoned its use. The popes advised that torture should be a last resort, should only be applied once, and should be kept "this side of loss of limb and danger of death". The inquisitors interpreted "only once" as meaning only once for each examination.
- Will Durant, "The Story of Civilization, Part IV, The Age of Faith"
Like Catholicism, we have thrown away our principles and embraced torture. John Yoo's disgusting excuses for torture are word for word identical to those used in the 14th century. We have watch lists, no fly lists, constant surveillance of our communications, and soon, pilotless drones everywhere. We have thrown away our freedom for "security", and we will have neither.
Nevertheless, the Inquistion did brutally suppress opposition to the Church until the Protestant Reformation. It smashed the Cathars, the Hussites, and many other heretics. And, I fear, America's elites' embrace of Gitmo, extraordinary rendition, pilotless drones, special forces, SWAT teams, and psychological warfare will defend Wall St. against the forces of popular discontent for at least a few decades. But it will provoke an even steeper decline in respect for its principles, as opposed to fear of its weapons.
The Road Ahead
In the end, a disgraced faith will be replaced by one that works. Americans have always been in love with making a buck. So whatever faith we have, it will be some version of capitalism.
Actually, FDR's regulated capitalism was the perfect Protestant Reformation for capitalism. But, in my analogy, its as though the Popes crushed the Reformation; and went back to being a corrupt, faithless bunch of sadists. Our analogous sadists have recreated slave labor by exporting our factories to China, resuscitated mindless destruction of the environment to make a few more bucks at the expense of everyone's health and the planet's survival, and are in the process of repealing women's rights and making them chattel and baby-factories to feed their brutal industrial workplaces and pillaging armies.
The road ahead for anyone with faith in democracy is to not let the New Deal die, to not let Europe's successful social policies be ruined by more robberies by banksters, to not let the fossil fuel companies derail the transition to renewable energy. We are called to be witnesses to the truth and success of regulated capitalism, and to denounce the perversion of our politics and economy by the financial elites and the theocrats and haters they use as storm troopers.
We are more fortunate than the Protestant Reformers, because we have just lived in an era where reform happened, reform worked, and reform was betrayed and killed. We have just lived in an era where scientific facts were respected, instead of being persecuted ala Galileo. We know where we want to go: back to an America that worked for almost everyone.
Its time to go home from Avignon.
Appendix: The Avignon Papacy
In 1309 Pope Clement V removed the papacy from Rome to Avignon. He was a Frenchman; he owed his elevation to Philip IV of France, who had startled all Christendom by not only defeating Pope Bonfice VIII but arresting him, humiliating him, and almost starving him to death...The immense effort of the papacy from Gregory VII (1073-1085) to Boniface VIII (1294-1303) to form a European world state by subordinating the kings to the popes had failed; nationalism had triumphed over a theocratic federalism...Wall Street has removed the Presidency from the White House and placed it at Goldman Sachs. Wall Street has finally destroyed the attempt of a democratic government to control its oligarchy. The efforts of Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, the two Rooselvelts, Kennedy, and Johnson have been in vain. We are conquered like never before. The government and our manufacturing base has being looted, dismantled, and handed out as booty.
- Will Durant, "The Story of Civilization, Part V: The Renaissance"
Avignon became a virtual temporal state of sumptuous pomp and of unlimited simony - that is, the selling of offices. Diminished by its removal from the Holy See of Rome and by being generally regarded as a tool of France, the papacy sought to make up prestige and power in temporal terms. It concentrated on finance and the organization and centralization of every process of papal government that could bring in revenue...every office, every nomination, every appointment or preferment, every dispensation of the rules, every judgment of the Rota or adjudication of a claim, every pardon, indulgence, absolution, everything the Church had or was, from cardinal's hat to pilgrim's relic, was for sale. In addition, the papacy took a cut of all voluntary gifts and bequests, offerings on the altar.How is this any different than the privatization of government services? Hedge fund managers pay lobbyists to bribe Congress-folk to privatize, for example, public education. That bribe confers a benefice of taxpayer dollars to the privately held education corporation.
Benefices, of which there were 700 bishops' sees...were the most lucrative source of papal income. Increasingly, the popes reserved more and more benefices to their power of appointment, destroying the elective principle...To obtain a conferred benefice, a bishop greased the palms of the Curia for his nomination, paid anywhere from a third to the whole of his first year's revenue as the fee for his appointment, and new that when he died, his personal property would revert to the Pope and any outstanding dues would have to be paid by his successor.
Excommunication and anathema, supposedly reserved for heresy and horrible crimes, were now used to wring money for recalcitrant payers...Money could buy any kind of dispensation...
When Church practices were calculated at a money value, their religious content slipped away. Theoretically, pardon for sin could only be won through penitence, but (this) had little meaning when the culprit could buy an indulgence.
- Barbara Tuchman, "A Distant Mirror - the Calamitous 14th Century"
How is the "concentration on finance" of American corporations - their endless invention of fees, kickbacks, penalties, etc. - any different from the grasping humbug of supposedly unworldly Christian priests?
How are charges of "terrorism" and threats of deportation for free speech or charitable contributions any different than using excommunication to force people to do what they do not want to do?
When our government is more concerned about rigged "cost-benefit analyses" than about the condition of their citizens, has not the democratic content of our government slipped away, to be replaced by rapacious capitalist thinking?