Idiots, Bastards etc.

Chris Hedges has a fine, if fearful piece on Truthdig on the current crisis for American capitalism. He addresses something I’ve been thinking about recently, which is that the corporate form that permeates government and business is structurally incapable of delivering for the common good.

Our elites—the ones in Congress, the ones on Wall Street and the ones being produced at prestigious universities and business schools—do not have the capacity to fix our financial mess. Indeed, they will make it worse. They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of the common good. They are stunted, timid and uncreative bureaucrats who are trained to carry out systems management. They see only piecemeal solutions which will satisfy the corporate structure. They are about numbers, profits and personal advancement. They are as able to deny gravely ill people medical coverage to increase company profits as they are able to use taxpayer dollars to peddle costly weapons systems to blood-soaked dictatorships. The human consequences never figure into their balance sheets. The democratic system, they think, is a secondary product of the free market. And they slavishly serve the market.

He then goes on to interview John Ralston Saul:

“The difficulty is you have a collapse, you have a loss of face by the people who are there, and it’s not just George Bush, it’s very, very deep,” Saul said. “What we’re talking about is the need to rethink the departments of economics, of political science. Then you have to rethink the whole analytic method of the World Bank. If I’m the secretary of the treasury, and not a guy like [Henry] Paulson, but I mean a sort of normal secretary of the treasury or minister of finance, and I say, OK, we’ve got a real problem, let’s get the senior civil servants in here. Gentlemen, ladies, OK, clearly we have to go in another direction, give me some ideas. Well, those people don’t have any other ideas because at this point they’re about the fourth generation of what you might call neoconservative globalist managers, unfairly summarized. So they then go to the people who work for them, and you work down; there’s no one in there with an alternate approach. I mean they’ll have little alternatives, but no basic differences in opinion. And so it’s very difficult to turn anything around because they’ve eliminated all opposing ideas inside. I mean it’s the problem of the Soviet Union, right?”

If, as their standard of living becomes increasingly precarious, the bulk of the population decides to sit back and expect the thinking about what is to be done to be conducted on their behalf by intellectually sclerotic elites who act out of commercial interests, the general prospects are not good, as the rest of the piece shows. Hedges’s prescription of ‘a revolt against our bankrupt elite and the dynamiting of the corporatist structure’ strikes me as modest and reasonable under the circumstances.

You can hear more from John Ralston Saul here, talking about his book The Collapse of Globalism. And also an interview here. Excerpt:

London: What do you propose we do about these entrenched elites and the rise of technocratic language and all these other evils. Where does that leave the lonely individual?

Saul: I’m not in the business of suggesting solutions, by the way. I don’t belong to the Platonic tradition, I belong to the Socratic tradition. But a lot of the sorts of things I’m talking about are things which are very, very simple. One of them is simply that if we are a democracy, how is it that we’ve highly structured our lives so that every free minute of our day is accounted for working, holidays, breaks, etc. and that the only time left over is the time to go home and have dinner with our families, go to bed, make love, get up, go to the bathroom, and go back to work — go back to the structured system. We have to sit back and say, “Wait a minute, we live in a democracy.” We have structured everything in there — sick leave, pregnancy leave — but we haven’t structured one minute in for citizen participation. The only way a citizen can participate is voluntarily, which means giving up going to the bathroom, give up making love, give up sleep, give up eating dinner with your family. In other words, we have structured citizen participation out of our society. For me, this is the simplest and most complete proof that we don’t live in a democracy — that we live in a corporatist society.

Hardly coincidental, then, that the people out protesting this week on the streets of Dublin were students and pensioners: they’re the ones with free time on their hands.

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October 2008
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