Plutocracy: government by the wealthy; the rule or dominion of wealth or of the rich
Oligarchy: government by the few; a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes; also: a group exercising such control
Whatever else may be true of civil governments, they are primarily systems of depredation, capture, piracy, thuggery, gangsterism, racketeering, etc. But the degree to which they fleece the societies they lord over varies widely. Some are never far from provoking the population to revolt. Others are restrained enough to be tolerated by all but a small part of the population — and even lauded by a large part — for a long time.
But greed eventually leads every regime to provoke open revolt. The question of whether a revolt is bloody or bloodless depends mostly on the government. Democracy’s chief, perhaps lone, credit is that it gives wider berth than any other form of government to the possibility of bloodless, rather than bloody, revolution.
Bill Moyers spoke, as part of the Howard Zinn Lecture Series, on 29 October 2010 at Boston University about the slide in the US back toward the plutocracy of the Gilded Age. The universal tendency of corporate and political power to merge gets attention periodically in public discourse. Rather than try to construct my own overview of the problem, I leave you to read or watch Moyers’ speech.
One of the specifics that Moyers discusses is efforts by the likes of the Koch brothers and Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence, to defeat health care reform. Dovetailing nicely with this is a Bloomberg article about the US Chamber of Commerce’s role in delivering the US into plutocracy. Of course, that’s not what the Bloomberg piece is supposed to be about. It’s about the money ($86.2 million) that health insurers gave AmCham to oppose health care reform.
It’s a nice piece of journalism that illustrates the lengths to which the health insurers went to oppose health care reform and the lengths to which they went to keep the extent of their opposition hidden. It also illustrates AmCham’s role as a money-launderer for corporations that want to influence the political process anonymously.
In the words of Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and current head of the political activity practice at a law firm in Washington, DC, “They [the health insurers] clearly thought the Chamber would be a more credible source of information and advertising on health-care reform, and it would appear less self-serving if a broader business group made arguments against it than if the insurers did it.”
Bloomberg focuses on the fact that the insurers were negotiating with legislators in drafting what became the Affordable Care Act with a professed interest in seeing reform done well while simultaneously and anonymously attacking the reform effort wholesale. They were able to exert influence from the outside without losing the credibility needed to influence the process from the inside.
This gets to the issue of disclosure of and restrictions on lobbying methods and the funding of electioneering activities and the rest of the “soft” corruption that tips a democracy into a plutocracy. Moyers closes his speech by exhorting us to organize to pass legislation that would, among other things, nullify the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. I’m all for that, and I say let’s go further and overturn the legal fiction — established by cases such as San Mateo County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1882), Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886), and Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad Co. v. Beckwith (1889) — that property (e.g., a corporation) is a person (which is the inverse of the equally absurd and now discarded legal fiction that a person is property).
However, I don’t believe that such efforts, even if successful, will accomplish a lot. The Republican Party and the Democratic Party both represent the wealthy. The political system is run for the benefit of the top 10% of income earners, and the trick of conservative consolidation is to use some of the resources of this elite 10% to make certain that the next 40% of income earners fear the bottom 50% more than they resent the top 10%. Rhetoric aside, the Democratic Party is conservative in the literal sense that they wish to maintain the bias in favor of the wealthy that is inherent to the current political economy.
There have been periods when the political economy was healthier than it is now, and this fact makes it seem reasonable to expect that significant improvements can be made now, that there is hope for improvement. After all, democracy is a strictly utilitarian system. It is not itself a reasonable object of faith or hope, but it seems to allow room for some kind of faith or hope for progress.
However, I think this is a deception. Societies under democratic systems of government have had ups and downs in the past, but I think there is no longer any good reason to expect or even hope for significant periods of upward momentum toward justice, peace, prosperity, or whatever else may seem like a worthy goal.
The reason has to do with the nature of the technological society, a concept described by Jacques Ellul in a book of that name. I recently read another book by Ellul that addresses propaganda as a particular class of technique in the nexus of techniques composing the technological society: Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (1965). I want to quote a passage (translated by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner) from section 3, “Propaganda and Grouping,” of chapter 5, “The Socio-Political Effects”:
“One can say that propaganda almost inevitably leads to a two-party system. Not only would it be very difficult for several parties to be rich enough to support such expensive campaigns of propaganda, but also propaganda tends to schematize public opinion. Where there is propaganda, we find fewer and fewer nuances and refinements of detail or doctrine. Rather, opinions are more incisive; there is only black and white, yes and no. Such a state of public opinion leads directly to a two-party system and the disappearance of a multi-party system.
“The effects of propaganda can also be clearly seen in view of what Duverger calls the party with the majority mandate and the party without that mandate The party with the majority mandate, which ordinarily should command an absolute majority in parliament, is normally the one that has been created by propaganda. Propaganda’s principal trumps then slip out of the hands of the other parties. All the latter can do then is to make demagogic propaganda, i.e., a false propaganda that is purely artificial, considering what we have said about the relationship between propaganda and reality. (In other words, the party out of power must pick an artificial issue.)
“In that case we find ourselves faced with two completely contradictory propagandas. On one side is a propaganda powerful in media and techniques, but limited in its ends and modes of expression, a propaganda strictly integrated into a given social group, conformist and statist. On the other is a propaganda weak in regard to media and techniques, but excessive in its ends and expressions, a propaganda aimed against the existing order, against the State, against prevailing group standards.
“But one must never forget that the party with the majority mandate, which adjusts its propaganda to that mandate and even uses the mandate as a propaganda aim, is nevertheless also the creation of propaganda, which hands it that mandate in a given setting and for a long period of time.
“Finally, a last word on the financial problems and their implications: it is improbable that the contributions alone would enable a party to pay for the increasingly expensive propaganda media. The parties are therefore forced to look for aid either to capitalists — and thus indenture themselves to a financial oligarchy — or to a government (national or foreign). In the second case, the State comes close to appropriating the instruments. The State then lends them to those who ask for them, which is very democratic, and thus permits secondary parties to live; but this leads to an unstable situation, as I said earlier, and the State is then increasingly forced to exercise censorship over what is being said by means of these instruments. This censorship will be increasingly rigorous as the State itself is forced to make more propaganda.
“This leads us to examine the hypothesis of a State that ceases to be neutral in the ideological domain and assumes a doctrine or ideology of its own. At that moment, propaganda by the State is imposed on all parties. To be sure, we are still dealing with propaganda. We have seen in past decades with regard to all “state religions” that power must first be used to shape public opinion, without which they could not operate. Thus, at the beginnings of the Nazi State, or of popular democracies, a certain competition continued between the propaganda of the State and that of the parties out of power. But in such competition the State necessarily emerges victorious; it increasingly denies the use of the mass media of communication to the opposition parties; it works on public opinion until the moment arrives when it can simply suppress opposition parties without fear. But the State can work on public opinion only through the intermediary of a party. This is another effect of propaganda. One could conceive of a State that would suppress all parties and live by itself: that was the classic pattern of dictatorship. However, that is no longer possible.
“Once public opinion has been aroused and altered to political problems, it must be taken into consideration. The propaganda mechanism of the State cannot function as an administrative unit; it cannot have reality or efficiency except through the media of the State party. It is impossible to imagine that a modern State could command acceptance without working through a party establishing contact between those who govern and public opinion. The party’s fundamental role is to make propaganda for the government, i.e., the propaganda that the government wishes to e made. In one sense, incidentally, we find here the image of a party in its purest state, for ultimately every party is a propaganda machine. But this is much more hidden in other systems in which there still can be nuances and discussions; in dictatorships, the party no longer serves any ideological or political function, no longer expresses social interests, and so on. It is an organ designed to tame and train public opinion, and exists solely because of the State’s need. As soon as that need diminishes, the role and prestige of the party also diminish This happened in Nazi Germany in 1938 (after the concentration of all powers in the Fuhrer’s hands), and in the Soviet Union after the purges of 1936. But as soon as propaganda again becomes important the party resumes its role.
“Propaganda very clearly gives direction to the life of political parties imposes certain forms and rules on them sends them down certain paths, and ends up by deciding their life or death until the regime expands to the point at which propaganda and party are totally fused.”
My view is that there is no longer a possibility of reforming the state into a more tolerable form because, although it may have taken forms in the past that were tolerable, it has now been transformed by the agglomeration of techniques, especially propaganda, to the point where meaningful reform is no longer possible. The only option I see is to withdraw all moral support from the state and minimize interactions with it. It cannot be made to serve the interests of humanity and the rest of creation.
Disciples of Christ who accept my assertions about A1 vs. A2 and their implications face the question of how to exist as a community if we are not to seek the formal order of hierarchy.
The community of Christians depicted in Acts is analogous to Israel during the period of judges. The community of Christians today is analogous to Israel during its period of monarchy. I won’t get into the controversy of the who, how, and why of this transformation other than to say that many in the community felt it necessary and appropriate to rein in the proliferation of shortcomings that were on display in the network. Priorities had to be set and choices made. A central issue was (and remains) the tension between the desire for maximizing the number of conversions versus maximizing the depth of spiritual maturity in each believer. And there was (and remains) tension between the impulse to live at peace with the state and the society it encompasses versus the inevitable trouble entailed in witnessing for truth among the deceived.
Benjamin Tucker asserts, “Society finds its highest perfection in the union of order with anarchy.”
I believe that God dislikes human relations that are based on A1 — authority in the pejorative sense. I also think that most people dislike A1, at least when they don’t wield it. Further, I believe that God wants the catholic church (not the Roman Catholic Church but everyone that Jesus recognizes as a follower of his) to embody his mysterious non-hierarchical order, which confounds the human intellect. I regard this as part of our mandate as his witnesses in the world. However, I do not believe that he wants us just to destroy hierarchy wholesale.
This leads me to two questions. First, why did the Israelites want to exchange an A2 society for an A1 state? Second, how can we become a network that fulfills God’s will and demonstrates his order?
There were probably several factors in the Israelites’ desire to have a human king, but I believe that chief among them was that they found it too burdensome and terrifying to relate to God directly. Remember that their conception of God differed from the conception of God that most Christians have today. We could do with a lot more of the fear of the lord that they had. On the other hand, they wanted something that we have, and take largely for granted, and probably can’t really imagine lacking — a mediator.
Moses was reluctant to lead and insisted on having a mediator, Aaron, between him and the rest of the Israelites. Similarly, when God called his people to the summit of Mt. Sinai, they refused to go and insisted on having a mediator, Moses, between them and God.
Moses had a fear of people, and the people had a fear of God. But isn’t a fear of God a good thing (e.g., the beginning of wisdom)? Yes, but we might differentiate between reverent and irreverent varieties of fear of God. The Israelites’ refusal to heed God’s call to meet him at the summit of the mountain is an example of an irreverent fear of God — a refusal to trust him, in this case.
Christian doctrine holds that Jesus Christ took a form both fully human and fully divine. The significance of this for our purposes here is that we can orient toward God in the form of a human who was subject to all the frailties and temptations that we face as humans. This makes the mediation of Jesus Christ a key that unlocks our ability to include A2 in and exclude A1 from our interactions.
Jesus acts as the human, and therefore less-scary-than-God, mediator that we want between God and us, and he does not ask for a mediator — such as Aaron — between him and us. However, Jesus is not merely a human but is God the Son. So Jesus is our mediator in a sense, yet there is actually no mediator since him who would be mediator is in fact God. Being both divine and human, Jesus is the exclusive source and bearer of A1 authority among humans. This paradox of the God–man who is king leaves us with no excuse for mis-assigning A1 authority to humans.
But his authority is not limited to the A1 type as God. He also displayed unmatched A2 during his ministry in human form on the earth. He brings an astounding, incomprehensible order. It is not the formal order that we are familiar with from the innovations conceived by humans. Our factitious order is a counterfeit of God’s artless, spontaneous order. Jesus is the king of kings, but he doesn’t create a hierarchy that we recognize in the delegation of portions of A1 to subordinates.
Jesus doesn’t just mediate between God and humans as God and human; he also mediates between monarchy and anarchy as the monarchal head of an anarchic community. It is as if a network of kings existed as a community in anarchy — yet with one king at the center of, over, and within all. Many people find this too paradoxical to take seriously. My only reply is that I no longer see truth untouched by paradox. (Here I mean eternal truth rather than merely accurate assessments of temporal reality.)
So how can anyone proceed from current circumstances toward the ideal I have sketched? Devising a plan would require employing means that are contrary to the end. I only propose that we stop subscribing to the false religion of formal order. I see no reason to fight with the hierarchy of Christendom. I merely withdraw my support for it. I tolerate it as well as I can, viewing it as a temporary arrangement that must disintegrate eventually. I recognize its flaws and place no faith or hope in it. But I also trust that God is working through it and is preparing us to exit at the right time as Noah and all exited the ark.
Incidentally, my view of the state is equivalent. I see no good case for promoting large-scale, direct conflict with the state. I simply give it no moral support. I pay taxes and make the other token gestures toward obedience without paying it any respect in my heart. This seems enough for now.
This entry continues on the theme of authority from the entry of 5 November.
Authoritative vs. authoritarian
In the period of judges, Israel was a community with no fixed ruler other than God. The nation was an amorphous network in which all people were equal in status but not in influence. Authoritative people received esteem granted voluntarily by others. These people carried A2 authority, but not A1.
In contrast, the institution of the monarchy conferred A1 authority to a human. In essence, the Israelites placed a man on God’s throne and created a rigid hierarchy that denied the inherent equality of individuals. A human ruler has to be authoritarian. The better kings may have exhibited authoritativeness periodically, but the point is that authoritarianism was always present.
Network vs. hierarchy
To generalize, a group devoid of A1 is a network, and a group that incorporates A1 is a hierarchy. A2 can exist in both arrangements, so the distinction between networks and hierarchies rests on whether A1 is present.
From a utilitarian perspective, the shortcomings of a network — anarchy — exceed those of a hierarchy. Or, more precisely, people exhibit greater shortcomings in the absence of hierarchical strictures. Yet a hierarchy also has shortcomings that I believe outweigh those of a network.
Order vs. disorder
People sometimes have difficulty turning a critical eye toward deeply held beliefs, especially those that have not been examined previously. The belief in hierarchy and A1 falls into this category. To circumvent natural mental defenses, I want to step away from human interactions and instead make an analogy out of scientific forestry, which James C. Scott depicted in a great essay at Cato Unbound titled “The Trouble with the View from Above,” which relates to our topic here. I recommend reading the whole thing, but I’ll just refer to the section on the invention of scientific forestry. The context is that princely states of Prussia and Saxony in the 1700s derived revenue from logging. To manage efficiently, the states devised methods for measuring the distribution of trees by size in a given area and thus calculating the greatest sustainable timber yield of that area. As Scott wrote:
“It is, however, the next logical step in German scientific forestry that commands our attention. That step was to attempt to create through careful seeding, planting and cutting, a redesigned forest that was easier to count, manipulate, measure, and assess. Thus was born the modern, ‘production’ forest: a mono-cropped (Norway spruce or Scotch pine), same-age, timber-farm planted in straight rows. The very uniformity of the forest vastly simplified its management and exploitation. Forestry crews could follow a few simple rules for clearing the underbrush, trimming and fertilizing; the mature trees of comparable girth and length could be felled into the alleys and marketed as homogeneous units to logging contractors and timber merchants. For nearly a century, during which German scientific forestry as a codified discipline became the world standard, the ‘production forest’ was a resounding success in terms of steady yields at low cost.
“Redesigning the forest as a ‘one-commodity machine,’ however, had, in the long run, catastrophic consequences for forest health and production. The mono-cropped, same-age forest was far more vulnerable to disease, blight, and storm damage. Its simplicity and formal order, together with the elimination of underbrush, deadfalls and litter dramatically reduced the diversity of the flora, insect, mammal, and bird populations so essential to soil building processes. Once the soil capital deposited by the old-growth forest had been depleted, the new forest entered a period of steep decline in growth and production. The term ‘Waldsterben’ entered the vocabulary of modern forestry science and led, in turn, to huge outlays for fertilizers, rodenticides, fungicides and insecticides as well as efforts to artificially reintroduce birds, insects and mammals that had disappeared.”
For the purposes of our discussion here, the key term in the passage above is “formal order.” The natural forest is characterized by anarchy, among other things. The modern conception of the word anarchy often treats it as a synonym for chaos or disorder. This is an egregious abuse of the word, but it reflects the fact that the natural human impulse is to replace anarchy with formal order.
A1 and its attendant hierarchy produce a measure of formal order, which appeals to and comforts many people. And there are benefits to formal order. But formal order is inferior to the natural, spontaneous order that God creates. God’s order is so different from the human conception of order that we view it usually as disorder. (Obviously, though, this does not mean that everything that looks to us like disorder is actually God’s order.)
In the next entry, I will look at some implications of A1 and A2 for those of us who are trying to tread the way to becoming Christians.
The scriptures are rife with examples of people leading and following other people. But they also indicate that each person should follow none but God. Is this not the essence of the first commandment?
To illustrate, chapters 8 and 12 of 1 Samuel reveal that the Israelites’ desire for a human king signified a rejection of and rebellion against God, who is the source and only legitimate possessor of authority. The idolatry of the human monarchy was the root of subsequent trouble and suffering.
And in Matthew 20:25–28, Jesus affirms that authority should not shape people’s interactions. He doesn’t bother with an explanation, but it seems plain to me that all people must share equal status because God created us in his image. There are two basic problems with injecting authority into human relations. First, it creates unequal power dynamics that are arbitrary and contrary to God’s perfect will. Second, it implies idolatry because a human must take a place that rightfully belongs to God.
His rejection of authority is jarring on its own, but Jesus doesn’t stop or even pause there. Instead, he points straight at a radically different and unnatural ideal to guide interpersonal relations: voluntary servanthood.
But I should step back and clarify what I mean by his rejection of authority because some would understandably dispute that authority is rejected here and elsewhere in scripture. First, passages such as Romans 13:1–6, Titus 3:1–2 and 1 Peter 2:13–17 definitely affirm authority in the sense that they instruct us not to rebel against civil government and other forms of institutional authority merely for the sake of making a point. We should seek to live peaceably as far as reasonably possible.
But there are circumstances in which opposing institutional authority is not only acceptable but also necessary, as illustrated in scriptures such as 2 Kings 9, Daniel 3, and Acts 4 among others. Determining when to defy requires the exercise of wisdom and discernment in each case individually rather than the application of any rule or formula to all cases uniformly. That said, I think that it is appropriate to distinguish between two broad types of authority and that the distinction makes the question of when to reject authority less daunting.
On one hand we have constituted authority, which is an obtained status that entails a right to decide matters in a certain scope and to command and expect obedience. I think of this as authority in the pejorative sense, which I will abbreviate as A1. I believe that the Bible acknowledges God alone as the rightful bearer of A1 with regard to humans.
God delegated freely to people a measure of A1 over the natural environment of the earth, but there is no legitimate basis for any human to assert A1 over any other human. A1 among humans is necessarily institutional, hierarchical, and legalistic in nature. Ecclesiastes 5:7–8:
If in a province you see the poor oppressed, right and justice violated, do not be surprised. You will be told that officials are under the supervision of superiors, who are supervised in turn; you will hear talk of “the common good” and the “service of the king.”
On the other hand is immanent authority, which is a capacity to elucidate and to motivate people. I will abbreviate this type of authority as A2.
I believe the Bible signals that God rejects human-to-human A1 and endows certain people with A2. A1 is based on status, A2 on competence. A1 benefits primarily the bearer, A2 the others. I associate A1 with authoritarian leadership, A2 with authoritative leadership.
The 300-year period of the judges in the history of Israel is an example of a nation characterized by an absence of A1 and the presence of A2. As an aside, this is essentially what I mean when I refer to anarchy (αναρχος — anarchos). The word means literally no ruler, but I think of it more specifically as no fixed seats of power that are handed from human to human.
The period of the judges was one in which each person did what was right in his own eyes and followed others not under compulsion, but only voluntarily when a person demonstrated A2. The spirit of God would assign a certain function to a particular individual for a certain time and empower that person to execute the assignment. The label judge, which might be roughly equivalent to apostle in New Testament nomenclature — was applied to people who demonstrated A2 and earned the esteem of cohorts.
The spirit-enabled person had to choose whether to rise to the task, and failure was always possible due to temptation, distraction, opposition, and failure of others in the community to recognize the person’s God-given authority (A2). And this means that the other members of the community had to choose individually whether to follow a particular person to achieve an objective. They had to discern whether a person was a fraud or was really chosen by and filled with the spirit of God for a particular purpose.
Jesus affirmed that one who recognizes and welcomes a prophet, qua prophet, receives a prophet’s reward. This means essentially that each individual is responsible for his or her own actions and relationship with God. There seem to be many people who feel that such an arrangement isolates individuals and leaves them vulnerable. This risk exists, but the arrangement also has the potential to liberate people to relate to each other while maintaining a constant orientation toward God. It allows God to direct and coordinate social interactions. The alternative is for this role to be usurped by humans and their institutions, which are really designed by and for the benefit of spiritual powers, authorities, principalities and dominions.
“The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten the words? He is the one I would like to talk to.” — Zhuangzi (庄子)
“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein
The words of this blog should be transparent and forgettable — disposable conveyors of durable concepts, paradigms, and paradoxes. I expect to write often about Christianity and sometimes about current events. I may also write occasionally about philosophy, music, science and who knows what else.
In any case, I am not a technician or specialist of any sort, and I hope this blog will have a nomothetic character. The following are the primary ideas and ideals that are likely to be reflected in this blog.
I value freedom and with it truth, neither of which can subsist without the other. In addition to these two things, I will address fear (often in the specific context of the culture and politics of the US, but elsewhere as well) since it seems to have an inverse correlation with freedom and, perhaps to a lesser extent, with truth.
I value equality. Dignity resides within every person, and human relations must be based on that equality.
Partly because of this, I loathe chauvinism in all its forms. Fear and ignorance seem to birth and sustain chauvinism, which stands opposed to truth and freedom. Chauvinism implies and even requires hierarchy, which institutionalizes and legitimizes inequality. Which brings me to my opposition to the modern state.
Anarchy is a touchstone by which I assess affairs of the world and their value. I do not consider anarchy a goal to be obtained or an ideology by which to be guided. So I do not consider myself an anarchist and am not one in any conventional sense of the word. However, I can sympathize to some degree with anarchists and probably share more in common with them than with any other group on the political spectrum — except perhaps libertarians, depending on how you choose to define and distinguish between anarchist and libertarian. My guiding principle in this area is that I have power over no one’s rights and liberties, and no one over mine.
On a tangentially related note, I am interested in the concept of the technological society as explored by Jacques Ellul. I am concerned with the encroachment on the individual implied by the proliferation of technique, and specifically the perpetual expansion of the modern state through the agglomeration of techniques.
Propaganda is one nexus of techniques that particularly interests me, and I will probably write a fair amount about the struggle required of the individual to maintain a personal, spiritual identity against the onslaught of techniques that would reduce him or her to an anonymous automaton in the abyss of mass society. I hope to write occasionally about the myth of progress, which is particularly important to contemporary propaganda.
I am a Christian — or, perhaps more accurately, am trying to become one more fully — and my favorite principle in Christian theology is that of regeneration/renewal (the Greek: παλιγγενεσία — palingenesia).
I want to see justice done and to see mercy granted. The paradox of justice and mercy in Christianity is one that I find particularly difficult to come to terms with.
And paradox is something that I appreciate. Not all paradoxes, but those that seem to contain a glimpse of truth with a capital T. And it seems to me that all truth involves paradox.
Last, I appreciate dissent. The jeremiad in the name of this blog is a reference to my given name and to one of my favorite verses in one of my favorite books of the Bible, Jeremiah 15:10, in which the author identifies himself as a man of strife and dissension. Jeremiah is alternately characterized as a weeping prophet; a prophet of doom, destruction, and judgment; and a plagiarizing prophet (because he quotes many other prophets). These characterizations are apt, but he also sounds a note of hope. Likewise, I seek to express views that are critical of the present world but that also point out reasons for hope, which paves the way to joy — thus the merry in front of jeremiad.
As I opened this entry with two quotes, so I close it with two:
“In order to be prepared to hope in what does not deceive, we must first lose hope in everything that deceives.” — Georges Bernanos
“Truth is meant to save you first, and the comfort comes afterward.” — Georges Bernanos