Supper Time: Singing the Praises of Power

In any power structure, at any level, it's not enough -- it's never enough -- that you simply acquiesce to it, or grudgingly accept it, or silently go along with it, or even openly compromise with it. No, you must also sing its praises. It's never sufficient just to obey the system of power; you must love it, you must laud it -- and you must do this sincerely.

This is what power always demands. You must acknowledge that the system is essentially good, doing essentially good things. Of course, it might veer from its essential goodness now and then: mistakes are made, good intentions can go awry, and yes, sometimes bad people can abuse the system and do bad things. But that's when bold voices are needed to step up and spark debate, instigate reforms and return the system to its true moral equilibrium once more.

However, a lack of proper enthusiasm, a failure to appreciate the essential goodness of the system, can leave you under a cloud of suspicion: What are you, some kind of radical? A wrecker? Are you ungrateful, spiteful, envious? Some kind of purist, prig, holier-than-thou? You think you're above the rest of us, who love the system and work so hard to make it better?

You can see this process at work in institutions everywhere, throughout history. From family dynamics to office politics to military hierarchies to every kind of government. After all, what were Stalin's purges but "reforms" of a system whose unquestionable goodness had been traduced by the mistakes and crimes of a few bad apples (or a few million bad apples)? The system hadn't failed; no, it had been failed. The system itself remained inviolate -- and the imperative to praise it, loudly and long, was still in force. Indeed, it was more powerful than ever; the "mistakes" made it even more important to hymn the system, lest people get the idea that it was not good, that its power was not legitimate.

Another example -- on a considerably less draconian scale -- cropped up recently. As Tarzie notes, Glenn Greenwald has been spending some of his post-Pulitzer time tweeting plaudits to oligarchs for their laudable social activism. Glenn sent kudos to the Koch Brothers for "using social media to protest abuses and racism in the criminal justice system." He was referring to an April 16 panel discussion in Austin, Texas, that was sponsored by an institute set up by one of the Koch brothers, Charles. The topic was prison reform, and the Charles Koch Institute had put up a Facebook post about it.

Greenwald linked to a story by another new media outlet, Ezra Klein's Vox. The story itself doesn't say anything about the Koch Brothers "protesting abuses and racism" in the American gulag, nor does the blurb on the Charles Koch Institute website. Here we read about a rather staid panel discussing various options on prison reform. The Koch group does note the vast number of people incarcerated in the United States, and mentions the deleterious impacts of this on society at large. But nowhere does it mention racism or abuses.

However, these topics probably were mentioned at the forum, because of what Vox considered the most newsworthy aspect of the story: along with usual powerful white men, the Charles Koch group had invited an actual black man to speak -- the head of the Texas NAACP, no less. This was unusual, considering the fact that Charles Koch's father, Fred, had been a founder of the rightwing extremist group, the John Birch Society, and that his sons Charles and David have long used the unearned wealth they inherited to roll back civil rights laws at every opportunity.

So yes, I suppose it was unusual that the Koch group let the leader of an African-American institution have a microphone at one of its forums. And I suppose it is laudable that Charles Koch, the sixth richest man in the world, is on record advocating the end of the mandatory sentencing laws that have swelled the American gulag to bursting. I'm not sure what kind of prison "reform" Mr. Koch would support; given his virulent opposition to government activity in almost every form (save corporate welfare and tax breaks for the rich), I would venture to guess it would involve an even greater role for the "private prison industry" -- those profiteers of human misery.

But yes, let's grant that it's nice that the sixth richest man on the planet and one of the most powerful right-wing figures in the world since Franco died is interested in prison reform, and actually let a black men speak under his aegis. That's swell. It might be a little surprising that someone who'd just won a Pulitzer Prize would use his newly elevated platform to trumpet this somewhat underwhelming fact, but what the hey.

However, that tweet was coupled with second one lauding yet another oligarch, Michael Bloomberg, for planning to use $50 million of his money to ape the hardball tactics of the NRA and punish politicians who don't vote the way he wants them to. Here, however, Greenwald is more explicit in the point he's trying to make. Linking to the NY Times story on Bloomberg's initiative, he asks: "Is this bad because an oligarch is using his vast wealth to influence political outcomes or good because of the goal?"

Greenwald's answer is implied in the question; it's a rhetorical exercise, not a topic for debate. He now works for an oligarch, Pierre Omidyar, whose profit-driven philanthropy and government connections make him the very model of a modern oligarch. It's obvious that Greenwald approves of oligarchs "using vast wealth to influence political outcomes," if that influence-peddling accords with Greenwald's beliefs. He has no problem with this system of power.

But if his question had been genuine, then the short answer would be, of course: "Yes, Glenn, it's bad. It's another confirmation that we live in a system where a very few titanically rich people decide 'public' policy and control 'public' debate. That is not a democracy."

And what, ultimately, is the "goal" of Bloomberg's initiative? It is to set up a powerful political organization that is explicitly intended to make politicians beholden to the organization and jump to its tune, just as the NRA's political puppets do. And in this case, the organization will be funded and controlled by one man -- a man whose vaulting political ambitions have never been a secret. It's hard to believe that a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist cannot see the self-aggrandizing angle of Bloomberg's initiative.

What's more, Greenwald's tweets came in the same week that a Princeton University study confirmed what many people already know: "U.S. No Longer an Actual Democracy," as the headline on the very mainstream Talking Points Memo aptly put it. From TPM:

A new study from Princeton spells bad news for American democracy—namely, that it no longer exists.

Asking "[w]ho really rules?" researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that over the past few decades America's political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.

Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.

"The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy," they write, "while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence."

As one illustration, Gilens and Page compare the political preferences of Americans at the 50th income percentile to preferences of Americans at the 90th percentile as well as major lobbying or business groups. They find that the government—whether Republican or Democratic—more often follows the preferences of the latter group rather than the first.

There you have it, from the very bowels of the respectable Establishment: the United States is now, by any measure, an oligarchy. That is the system of power that controls the country. And, as we know, systems of power must always be praised. Our oligarchs must be praised: "Look, oh look, at their benevolence, look at their concern for us! Look how they let a black person speak in public! Look how they want to buy politicians for us! Look how they want to fund dissident journalism in the system that has made them wealthy and powerful! Are their goals not noble? Should we not encourage our overlords to be merciful toward us? Should we not work with them -- and for them -- to reform the system that they control and manipulate for their own benefit? Praise them, tweet them, for the system is good. Oligarchy is good."

This is what we are seeing now from Glenn Greenwald, with these tweets aimed at exalting the good works of oligarchs. He's not saying, "Well, it's a dirty world, it's a dirty system, but I'm making this compromise -- working for an oligarch -- because I believe it's the least worst option I have in the world I've been given. It's not what I would want to do, and I'm certainly keeping a wary eye on the Boss Man's hijinks -- but I honestly believe it's the most effective way I can try to do at least a small amount of good in the system we have." That's a legitimate position; some might argue against it, some might draw the line of compromise at different places, but it's a choice that people have always had to make in systems controlled by malevolent forces.

But he's not saying anything like that -- not even remotely. He's saying that the system itself is good. Our new, Princeton-recognized system of oligarchy is good; all power is out of our hands now, but the oligarchs can do good things, and we should encourage them to do more. If we can just reform this business of overactive surveillance by the state --- which impinges even on the activities of our oligarchs! -- then all will be right again. The fact that oligarchs control the political system, control the economy, bankroll the destabilization of foreign countries, monetize philanthropy and control the media -- even the "dissident" media -- this is of no concern. The idea that we are seeing this kind of overreaching by the state precisely because there is no longer even a pretense of democratic accountability to the citizenry by a government that is now wholly in the hands of a small, monied elite -- this doesn't even occur to our new-style, oligarch-funded dissidents. How can it? Such a viewpoint would undermine the legitimacy of the oligarchs who are now underwriting "dissent" and other noble goals like gun control and prison reform.

So it's not enough to work for an oligarch -- grudgingly, or warily, or quietly. It's not even enough to praise the particular oligarch who funds your own noble work. No, you must praise other oligarchs. You must laud their work without skepticism or suspicion -- even if they have spent decades funding virulent neo-fascism, racism and the degradation of the common good. You must not even check out their activities before accepting millions of dollars from them -- as Greenwald has proudly hailed his own willful ignorance of Pierre Omidyar's activities before signing on with his media venture.

Power demands your praises -- and it demands them sincerely. I have no doubt that Greenwald now sincerely believes that oligarchy is a force for good. (I'm not as sure that the Greenwald I used to know would have believed this -- but then again, perhaps he did.)  But what it is interesting here -- and chilling -- is to watch this age-old dynamic of power-praising being played out yet again, in the super-techno, hyper-modern world of "dissident media."

While finishing up this piece, I ran across a new article by Thomas Franks on a similar theme, taking off from Bloomberg's new initiatives:  "Why Elite billionaire liberalism always backfires." Below are a few excerpts:

During the nineteenth century, a long string of saintly aristocrats fought to reform the state and also to adjust the habits and culture of working-class people. These two causes were the distinctive obsessions of the wealthy liberals of the day: government must be purified, and working people must learn to behave. They had to be coerced into giving up bad habits. They had to learn the ways of thrift and hard work. There had to be sin taxes. Temperance. Maybe even prohibition.

On the single greatest issue of the time, however, these sanctimonious reformers were of no use at all. They were in favor of clean government, to be sure, but when it came to organized money’s war on the world, which was then bringing impoverishment and industrial combat and dislocations of every description, they were indistinguishable from the most stalwart conservatives. Describing the patrician “Mugwump type,” the historian Richard Hofstadter writes,

[T]he most serious abuses of the unfolding economic order of the Gilded Age he either resolutely ignored or accepted complacently as an inevitable result of the struggle for existence or the improvidence and laziness of the masses. As a rule, he was dogmatically committed to the prevailing theoretical economics of laissez faire. . . . He imagined that most of the economic ills that were remediable at all could be remedied by free trade, just as he believed that the essence of government lay in honest dealing by honest and competent men.

If that description hits uncomfortably close to home, well, good. We’ve returned to the Gilded Age, laissez-faire is common sense again, and Victorian levels of inequality are back. The single greatest issue of then is the single greatest issue of now, and once again people like Bloomberg—a modern-day Mugwump if ever there was one—have nothing useful to say about it, other than to remind us when it’s time to bow before the mighty. Oh, Bloomberg could be relentless in his mayoral days in his quest for sin taxes, for random police authority, for campaigns against sugary soda and trans fats. But put a “living wage” proposal on his desk, and he would denounce it as a Soviet-style interference in private affairs.

During the Occupy Wall Street protests, he declared that we should stop criticizing investment banks; it would cost us jobs: “If you want jobs you have to assist companies and give them confidence to go and hire people.” Later on, when confronted with a successor who didn’t share his views, he graduated to straight-up trickle-down: “The way to help those who are less fortunate is, number one, to attract more very fortunate people.” Only by helping the rich, and helping them more, and then helping them even more, can we ever hope to do something for the poor. ...

To say that there is no solidarity in this form of liberalism is to state the obvious. This is not about standing with you, it is about disciplining you: moving you out of the desirable neighborhoods, stopping and frisking you, prodding you to study the right things. Or, at its very noblest, it is about enlisting you in some fake “grassroots” effort whose primary purpose is to demonstrate the supreme moral virtue of the neo-Mugwump who’s funding the thing—to foam the runway for him as he makes his final approach to Heaven International Airport.