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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 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 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 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.

Free Companies

...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...

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"

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.

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.

The Inquisition

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 bring heretics to judgment. This was the beginning of the papal inquisition...

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 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"

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.

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...

- Will Durant, "The Story of Civilization, Part V: The Renaissance"

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.
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.

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 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.

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?

Originally posted to ClassWarfare Newsletter: WallStreet VS Working Class Global Occupy movement on Sat Feb 11, 2012 at 05:48 PM PST.

Also republished by The Royal Manticoran Rangers.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Epic (7+ / 0-)

    I enjoyed that. Thank you.  And I agree that the government is more concerned about some of its citizens than others.  I think we've lived in a golden era of sorts. I think our govt has always favored the capitalist.

    I try to stay optimistic about the future, but things often get worse before they get better.

    One of the positive things I got from reading that was the full realization of how slowly the wheels turn.  And that's ok. Frustrating, though...

    “The most important trip you may take in life is meeting people halfway” ~ Henry Boye~

    by Terranova0 on Sat Feb 11, 2012 at 06:24:12 PM PST

  •  Nice analogies here. I have read Tuchman's (7+ / 0-)

    'Distant Mirror' and find it dense, rich and excellent.

    Very interesting view point.

    Thank you.

    Science is hell bent on consensus. Dr. Michael Crichton said “Let’s be clear: The work of science has nothing to do with consensus... which is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right,”

    by Regina in a Sears Kit House on Sat Feb 11, 2012 at 07:47:46 PM PST

    •  Tuchman was writing during the Viet Nam war (3+ / 0-)

      and wrote "The March of Folly" during the same period.

      That time was close to the peak of American dominance, so "Distant Mirror" had less resonance then than now.

      But after 30 years of reactionary wrecking by the super-rich and their their theocrat allies, America looks like the Middle Ages.

      She wrote excellent books. I found "Stillwell and the American Experience in China" to be the best study of how China came to be Communist.

  •  Outstanding diary (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ozsea1, arendt, KenBee, Words In Action, Carlo

    Thanks for this.

  •  Indeed (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    arendt, joe wobblie

    republished to The Royal Manticoran Rangers, gladly.

    I'm actually working again, on a contract basis, with a 503 (c)3 nonprofit agency that serves minority and special-needs populations with their health insurance needs. I've found my calling. I hope this becomes a permanent job. Please wish me luck!

    by ozsea1 on Sat Feb 11, 2012 at 11:57:01 PM PST

    •  Thanks... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      first I've heard of TRMR.

      Is it like the Hash House Harriers? :-)

      I do wish you luck with your new job.

      •  There's an entire universe (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        joe wobblie

        I did some wikipedia research, and discovered a whole new novelized sci-fi series. Quite a read, if I could make the time.

        This group publishes diaries that would otherwise slip through the cracks and disappear. Diaries, that, in the editor(s) opinion, deserve more attention.

        I'm actually working again, on a contract basis, with a 503 (c)3 nonprofit agency that serves minority and special-needs populations with their health insurance needs. I've found my calling. I hope this becomes a permanent job. Please wish me luck!

        by ozsea1 on Sun Feb 12, 2012 at 11:58:57 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Did someone comment re tuchman? (0+ / 0-)

    I swear that I responded to such a post, now that post and my response are gone.

    This happened just before I got a "please wait, update in progress" splash screen from DKos, around 11 PM EST. Could some posts have gotten wiped out if they happened just when this update was going in?

  •  And most of our reps literally buy their (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Nisi Prius, arendt

    "elected" offices, and many other appointments are given to those for campaign assistance in money, influence, favors and, in some cases, legitimate campaign legwork. And what can we say of the unregulated campaign war/treasure chests?

    It is nearly a perfect analogy. And the Wall St plague is mutating into Global Warming, which will ultimately be even more deadly.

    Unfortunately, until the moderates are individually cleansed and converted through personal devastation, reform and resistance will be weak. With civil liberties increasingly curtailed and surveillance/inquisition capabilities and use ever-expanding, resistance becomes more difficult every year.

    With Global Warming denialism and the broader War on Science, the international revival of various forms of serfdom, and so forth, one could go on and on.

    •  OTOH (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Who says the impetus or even the heavy lifting has to occur first in the States?  We no longer dominate the world.  We can't afford it because Wall Street and the other plutocrats have gutted our national wealth.  As a result, as with the innovators of Tahir Square giving rise to Occupy, the first successes may very well occur elsewhere, and gradually drift over the seas or the ether; or even be imposed by international demand on an unwilling American plutocracy.  The wells of socialism and communal effort are deeper almost anywhere than they are here.   But the interconnection of the modern world means that advances made elsewhere are more likely to affect us than at any time in history.  The robber barons of America can no longer count on their depredations going unchallenged by foreigners when they cause grievous harm.  Not to bring up the obvious, but the Arab Spring was NOT supported by the American rulership except in the case of old enemy Qaddafi, and is only being accepted because the alternative is yet another endless war they don't want to pay for.

      Empires are usually toppled by rebellions that start in the hard-to-control periphery and spread inward.  Look for resistance in Japan, Indonesia, the Phillipines and South America.  Look for more "cost of doing business here" taxes imposed by Europe like the recent carbon tax on use of their airports.  Look for fewer countries offering us Most Favored Nation status, and the resultant losses to capitalist balance sheets.  Those things add up to significant loss of power for imperial rulers that snowball into other breakaways.

  •  Very interesting. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    And amusing.  It sheds light on a few things I never really understood back when we were struggling with the French Kings over who was going to control Palestine.  And some things I knew but wasn't willing to face up to when I worked in Avignon.  I have to point out that from the point of view of a minor Church official, life in Avignon under the French Papacy was a quite ordinary round of bureaucracy, little different from working in DC today.  There were the petty tangles, the bs, and the underlying sense that despite the obvious corruption, one was still doing important, socially-essential work and that the majority of one's colleagues were also Good People, aside from a few notable bad apples.  It is very difficult to perceive institutional corruption from the inside.

    I feel obliged to point out that you display a rather obvious bias in the assumption that the Protestant Reformation was an unalloyed social good.  While that's typical of an Anglo-American perspective, it raises eyebrows from the non-protestant.  Unless you like owning three centuries of European religious wars, a few million witch-burnings, the rape of Ireland and the final and irrevocable loss of living mystical practice in western Christianity.  Sad, when you realize that one of the primary demands of the Hussites was that the Sacrament be made available in both kinds -- Body and Blood -- to all communicants, rather than the Blood being reserved to the priesthood.  How quickly that deteriorated to the Puritan concept of wealth as an outward manifestation of God's Grace and therefore the elevation of the rich to near-divine status.

    I also question your belief that we can go backward in time to the Roosevelt compromise between capitalism and social welfare.  One of the most immutable laws of history appears to be, that you can only move forward, not back.  Just sayin'.  I'm not sure it CAN'T be done.  But I have to say that I place little faith in it.

    •  A substantive response. Thanks so much. (0+ / 0-)

      I do appreciate hearing from someone who has worked inside the institutions in question.

      While I agree that the Calvinists were whack jobs from the beginning (and therefore, the Puritans too), there were also perfectly sane Protestants, such as Lutherans or Church of England.

      I would counter that your perspective raises my eyebrows, as well.

      Unless you like owning three centuries of European religious wars, a few million witch-burnings, the rape of Ireland and the final and irrevocable loss of living mystical practice in western Christianity.
      Well, both sides were happy to start the "religious" wars, so much of which were about property grabs and imperial ambitions. I will grant that the rape of Ireland went on longer than the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, or the Spanish war on Jews in Spain, or the destruction of Bohemia by Catholic armies.

      As for witch burnings, it was a Catholic Inquisitor who wrote

      The Malleus Maleficarum  (Latin for "Hammer of the Witches", or "Der Hexenhammer" in German) is an infamous treatise on witches, written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, an Inquisitor  of the Catholic Church, and was first published in Germany in 1487.

      - Wikipedia

      By my count, 1487 is 30 years BEFORE Luther.

      My point here is not to compete about who killed more people or committed more grievous wrongs. My point is that no one can claim any moral high ground. Both sides came out of the period covered in mud and blood.

      As for mystical practice, it was the persecution of the Cathars by the Inquisition that snuffed any kind of esoteric/body-based practice in Christianity.  I really don't see how you can blame the PR for that, since it was done 200 years before the PR. (To be clear: I don't consider communion wine to be mystical practice. Its just another ritual. Another "controversy"  not worth an iota of difference.)


      Also, I question your assumption that we have completely lost the Rooseveltian compromise. For the moment, we still have Social Security and Medicare. I think that killing the unemployment insurance extension will not help the GOP, either. That is why I ask people to defend those New Deal programs.

      America is the most backward of 1st world countries, and getting more backwards by the day, so I can see how you would be willing to pronounce the New Deal already deceased. But social welfare is still practiced in Europe.

      More and more, I think the demonization of France by the Cheney neocons was really the demonization of a strong social safety net and strong unions that are typical of European regulated capitalism. You don't hear much negativity about France from TPTB since that strutting neoliberal Sarkozy got in.


      So, again, thanks for your interesting perspective and your polite comments.

  •  "Babylonian captivity" of the popes (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    is one name of the period according to Wikipedia. Similarly we could call this the "Babylonian captivity" of our democracy.

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