Saturday, October 10, 2015

To the Bastille!

Aristocracy means rule by families. By that definition, America is becoming an aristocracy because we have allowed disproportionate power and wealth to concentrate in political and economic bloodlines—the much discussed increase in inequality of the last 40 years would be a very different phenomenon were it just about individuals. According to the New York Times this morning, 158 families have contributed more than half the money fueling the candidates for the 2016 presidential election—$176 million from 138 Republican and 20 Democratic families. What’s true of donors is also true of candidates. Of course there have always been prominent families in American politics, but the contemporary dynasties are different in a crucial way: you no longer have to excel to carry on a famous name. You just have to be born with one. Compare the Roosevelt or the Adams families with the Bushes. In lieu of one outstanding individual after another, you have from George Walker to Jeb a line of idiot princes worthy of the Bourbons. In politics as in education, the legacies have a leg up on the scholarship and affirmative action kids.

It is important to recognize that aristocracy in the West is not some historical leftover. It’s actually fairly recent—what we call the ancien regime in France wasn’t all that ancient and most of its elite were not nobles, if by nobles we mean members of very old lineages who derived their prestige from their military exploits. They were simply the caste of families that had made it, who had a heritable right to office and owned the lion’s share of the land. The English ruling class of the 18th Century also constituted a largely closed corporation—granted the power of local patronage, the smallness of the electorate, and the many rotten boroughs, the House of Commons wasn’t much more representative of the nation as a whole than the House of Lords.

In the run-up to the French Revolution, the Aristos were a lot like our pluto- and technocrats. They weren’t (yet) fossilized admirers of the past or sworn enemies of the Enlightenment. Like the neoliberals and neocons of our times, they thought they were the Enlightenment. I guess you could make a case that the Aristocrats of the reign of Louis XVI differed from ours in one respect. Perhaps they were a little less vulgar and still retained a sense of noblesse oblige so that it would have been possible to distinguish Edmund Burke and Donald Trump, at least in good light. Or maybe not. Power and privilege has always coarsened people more often than it ennobled them; and, on the other hand, even now you encounter the occasional decent billionaire.

It may well be that the aristocratic society emerging in modern America is the real end of history, i.e., the more or less stable state of affairs towards which everything naturally trends. Democracy, in either the sense of Jefferson or Carl Schmitt does seem obsolete. Political elites don’t need the many as much as they did before, either as proles or cannon fodder, and the idealism of the past seems merely quaint. Or it may be as it was before, when it was the hubris of the aristocrats that ushered in the Age of Revolution. It’s very hard for those who have not to want more, and that overreaching can finally mobilize those who have very little. The talking heads on CNN who call for reform of Social Security and Medicare are quite right in their own terms. It is perfectly true that such institutions are incompatible with the increase and perhaps even merely the continuation of the current high levels of inequality. They and their caste might find themselves pulling a repeat of the error of Croesus. You recall the story: the Lydian king asked the oracle of Delphi whether he should attack the Persians. The oracle supposedly told him “if you cross the river Halys, you will destroy a great empire.” Maybe what the God of mice is telling today’s political class these days is that if you attack Social Security, you will destroy a great entitlement.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

The Invisible Man Puts in Another Appearance

Kevin McCarthy, presumptive heir to the Speakership of the House is said to have been caught in a truth a few days ago when he bragged about how the Benghazi hearings were succeeding in their goal of tearing down Hillary Clinton. The only thing surprising about what he said was that he said it. Everybody knew that the hearings weren’t about investigating the circumstances of what was, after all, a normal disaster, that is, the kind of misfortune that inevitably occurs in the midst of wars and insurrections. Democrats and Republicans alike understood the motives of the investigators. So did the press, though by the rules of the game they could never just report the facts. It’s rather like those Japanese puppet shows where the puppets are manipulated by operators dressed in black. The deception is not concealed, but the audience agrees to pretend it can’t see it and you aren’t even supposed to acknowledge the convention that makes the comedy possible.

A more significant example of the same thing is the campaign to discourage or prevent black people from voting, though in that case, it was Supreme Court justices as well as news presenters who took pains to preserve the pathetic lie that dismantling the Voting Rights act had something to do with the menace of voter fraud. We weren’t supposed to notice the puppeteer. Indeed, the puppeteer doesn’t even have to try to be inconspicuous. The other day, it was announced that Alabama is closing DMV offices in heavily black districts, a move that makes it harder for black people to get the picture IDs they need to vote. Several states are making the requirements for abortion clinics more and more stringent and claiming they are concerned about the safety of patients. It goes on.

If exhibitionists followed the Conservative model, they’d argue that their pricks were really hat racks.