A new study proclaims that America is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy whose needs are to be met at every turn at the expense of the general welfare. There was hardly a whimper of protest as the mass media reported the contents of the study. I guess everybody was busy with their cell phones and Twitter and other milestones in our organized drive for national triviality to stop and think about what the study’s conclusions might mean to the bulk of our people.
Apparently wealth and power are the grim idols that the world adores. The rich feel that they are not a product of their environment, but their environment is a product of them. Today America is governed by the rich, the study says, and we add that the rich think themselves superior not only in money but also in spiritual value. It is their money that has built America’s prosperity, its military and its economic power, its standing in the world, and its ability to steer events in their favor. Monetary success clearly bestows greatness.
Unfortunately, to be governed by the rich is to be governed by people whose main power resides chiefly in wealth and possessions that claim for them political and economic privileges whose aim is to gain more advantage over others who are less fortunate. The poor are losers, and if they had more talents and determination they would not be poor. People with a drive to be rich cannot part with the essence or principle of hostility to anyone but themselves. They waged war with each other before they ever noticed the poor. But the makeup of some of them seems to be made of antipathies: without something to look down on they appear to fear that the very spring of thought and action would be missing. Life would turn into a stagnant pool were “it not ruffled by jarring interests,” said Hazlitt. Like him, I think rulers take a perverse delight in the mischief inflicted on rivals and the less fortunate, a never failing source of satisfaction.
“Behind every fortune stands a crime,” Balzac said. And it should be remembered that the founders of the Greek nation were outright pirates just like our Robber Barons. King Menelaus freely admitted that he had acquired his treasures largely by pillage. I am a big fan of the Odyssey, but Odysseus was above all things, mighty in piracy. He was just like John D. Rockefeller. It never occurred to such the Greeks and the Robber Barons to ask what suffering was caused by seized those treasures and enslaving the defeated. But is an established generality of ancient history that the vanquished and their goods became property of the victor. Burckhardt somewhere notes somewhere that the small Greek states were animated the sweeping egotism of doing not only what was essential for their survival but what in a wider sense seemed desirable and convenient. Does this not describe the U.S. rich of today? These Greeks and Robber Barons committed shocking inequities, not in the heat of unbridled passion but deliberately, not only against enemies but also against friends who were too weak to resist and therefore easy to victimize. Think of the Stock Market and the Crash of 2008. (It is also interesting that as the wealth of the Greeks waned, so did their appetite for vicious conquests.)
One has to ask, at what point the 1% in America will feel sated by what it owns and influences, and what it continues to bend to its will. We know that many rich are ungenerous, and we ask what gives rise to such greedy animosities that drive many of the rich? Is their war on the less fortunate designed to awe, to cow, to humiliate, to parade colossal achievements of the rich in front of those who have much less to boast of? Is it really competition that lies at the roof of their natures or is it something else, some streak of incessant aggression?
Americans think of themselves as the “jewel box” of the world, a phrase from Burckhardt’s masterpiece on the Renaissance in Italy. What he says of tyrannical princes then applies to tyrannical economic lords of our day. “They shrink from no measures that will damage their weaker competitors and hold them in a condition of helpless dependence. They labor from the misconception that they can get on without any assistance from the rest, paving the way for a new despotism.” Many of the rich of today are mercenaries who sell their support to the highest bidder. And we, the lesser breeds, whose accomplishment in art, thought, culture, the creation of literature, we are valued only to the degree that our work is popular and becomes expensive.
Who Are The Rich?
Unfortunately, the rich are very often not people with a wide array of interests, any depth of sympathy, or a detailed and accurate knowledge of other civilizations, and most lack the knowledge of how we came to be what we are. To them, the fittest have survived. Yet how refined are their tastes? How delicate in the fabric of their inner spirituality? How humble is their worship of life and to what degree do they respect the aspirations of those who are not like themselves? When an opinion springs to their mind, do they ever ask if they had any extensive exposure and knowledge of the matter? Have they explored as much as possible the books and studies that treat of it? Or do they simply judge as a matter of unthinking reflex. Or do they hire others to read for them, trusting to the judgments of underpaid people who crave to be found pleasing by their employers? What is the value of such their opinions? In my experience, the rich are very often ignorant people who are half educated and possess very little of general culture. What is Michelangelo’s work? An ornament. (The real men of the day were the Medicis with a cast of mind like their own.) What was the value of “The Prince?” It never made the author any money. What was opera? A trifle. Literature regarded by the rich as a bauble done by those who lacked an appetite for steady productive work instead of thinking of it an extreme expression of the human spirit.
The divide between the poor, middle class and the rich reminds one of the divide between the Greeks and barbarians. In Greek and Roman history the humanity of the barbarians is entirely dismissed -- it was a humanity of a lower grade. And it would seem that in the rich and their doctrines of self-worship, we see in the rich a range of incessant spite directed against the poor and the less well-off at least in the policies of the Republicans and Democrats. We see in the rich and their policies, the desire to hold things down and make their lives of ordinary people more miserable than they already are -- this desire to parade your superiority and privilege while being utterly insensitive to what others are striving people are attempting and taking prideful satisfaction in their always coming up short.
Yet the people who come up short in life never arouse sympathy or any effort to help on the part of the rich. (I except people like Bill Gates and others.) Their shortcomings of the ordinary only seem to glorify the advantages of being wealthy and ruthlessly wielding power because of it. It is a pitiless business being rich, and one has to ask, what is this streak that has to belittle and crush in order to feel capable? What is this mean streak that acts as if it has such weight in the world it can pushes people’s faces into the mud? It is my view that the people who make American rich and powerful shrank from no measure, however extreme that might damage their competitors or hold them in a condition of helpless dependence, as I said. Think of the development and triumph of Standard Oil, and its utterly selfish concerns in the Middle East in World War I, especially in Palestine, recklessly buying up huge concessions at the expense of the Arab owners. Each robber baron thought he could succeed without the assistance of the rest, and so they stooped to any device to advance themselves, as I said. They thought of every situation in terms of self-interest. Embracing your little petty path of success as the only path that anyone worthy would want to take, they think. This stuff makes me sick. It is so selfish shortsighted, so lacking any moral worth, displays such beady conniving recklessness against the rise of others whose rise may threaten your own.
I am not writing in a spirit of envy. My grandfather was extremely wealthy, and my father, who didn’t graduate from college earned $1.5 million in 1959 and $3milion two or three years later from a tawdry TV series. He twice disinherited me because I stood up for my step mother, a vulgar, noisy self-willed woman I did not like. My point is that money should not be a license for misconduct and from what I saw of the rich, they were people of vast carelessness. Wealth should not grant a license for indecent behavior.
Judge Grosscup’s Question
In our national culture, the individual American life was supposed to succeed because the economic and political structure of the country were not supposed to be an obstacle to the rise of the ordinary man or woman as it has become.
It seems to me that serious questions about the ownership of America still stand unanswered, even at this late date.
In the early twentieth century, the idea of the “common proprietorship of the country” governed by its majority included the faith in small people being able to big things over time – an idea that has been seriously weakened. In 1905, an article in McClure’s by Judge Peter Grosscup, who was a very conservative in his views, said that in our national culture, the individual American life was supposed to succeed because of an individual’s merits were employed and triumphed in the face of difficult obstacles. The economic life of the country was not to be such an obstacle. Success was earned by the personal virtues of energy, frugality, ambition, discipline, insight, and perseverance. Grosscup was concerned by the loss of the instincts of drive and creativity among ordinary people that had made us an unusual and prosperous nation.
Grosscup argued that while America was more prosperous than ever before, it was losing its soul. To his mind, what was being jeopardized was the loss of the ordinary individual’s hope of any widening of his economic prospects and succeeding in his endeavors. He feared that the soul of independent American was in jeopardy because the Trusts and huge corporations, and feared that the acquisition of property by the individuals who make up the bulk of the people “will cease to be one of the opening and controlling purposes of their lives.” He feared corporate paternalism or state socialism, both of which, he felt, were fatal to individual liberty. He never foresaw a threat like the sub-prime mortgage crisis. He never investigated into the mechanics of gaming the system.
The dream of Lincoln’s “an equal start in the race of life” stated that the ordinary man, by means of his virtues, his own unique qualities – his grit, determination, his ignoring of hardship, his determined energy -- would help him arrive at the station in life where his unassisted efforts had brought him. Grosscup doubted this. He said that that Lincoln’s dream had been lost. He pointed out that the American corporation “was putting an unbearable strain on the institution of private property.”
Grosscup also maintained that the “road to proprietorship” had to be opened to the wage-earners of the country. Such a thing, if achieved, would regenerate America. This is the “race for life” that Lincoln talked of, but that was no longer being run. It was Woodrow Wilson who built on Grosscup’s misgivings, believing that human beings should not labor under any limitations other than their own personal ones, their own limitations of character and minds in the race of life. Wilson wanted to see a society regenerated from “the bottom” rather than from the top. He saw the middle class as continually been “squeezed out” by what he called, “the processes of prosperity” -- by the trusts and large corporations. Because of the structure of organized capital, the American people had gone from a nation of achievers to a nation of poorly paid employees. The corporations had “fitted the American people for a strait jacket while they were left to do as they pleased.”
Wilson ended with a thrilling declaration – “…anything that depresses, anything that blocks, discourages, dismays the humble man, is against the principles of progress.” Unfortunately, his declaration appears to have changed nothing
So how do we resist? What powers can we ordinary people command? I don’t see any of any true effect. The media are a commercial venture. Their corporate owners make their employees toe the line, and reporters are people of party. The people most likely to get a hearing in the media are among the most ignorant and bigoted or else they are the pimps of established power.
Protests against Wall Street only inspire contempt for their complete uselessness. Can the poor arm themselves? That would be suicide. Would the middle class rebel? No. It has TV and Blu Ray and video games. Can the rest of us mount protest that may influence the course of events and help curb the capricious rich? In this, I am completely baffled about what to do.
Every year, America’s school children read less and less and no little about history and America’s place in it. Their minds are benumbed with Twitter, Facebook, cell phone and YouTube who spread widespread mediocrity. Entertainment is the opium of the people. What puts heart into me, what maintains my own idea of as self-sufficient individual is an incident in Napoleon’s early life. When he was nine or ten, in a military school, a seminarian punished him by ordering him to wear dunce’s clothes and eat his dinner kneeling down. The teacher shouted, “Down on your knees,” and hearing this, Napoleaon was seized by a fit of vomiting and a violent attack of nerves. Stamping his foot, he shouted, “I’ll eat my dinner standing up, not on my knees, in my family, we kneel only to God.” The teacher tried to force him, but Napoleon rolled over on the floor sobbing and shouting, “Is that right, Maman? Only to God! Only to God!” Finally, the headmaster intervened, and cancelled the punishment.
It is a very moving incident. “Only to God!”
Where does that courage lead us in today’s life? I have no idea. But I also remember the last words Napoleon’s mother said to him as he left home: “Courage.”