“I seriously believe this country deserves everything that’s going to happen to it. War, revolution, madness, the whole bag.”
~ Hunter S. Thompson, 1968
Authoritarian strains in American politics and economy have a long history. Major American figures, including President Jimmy Carter, have warned that the United States is now a banana republic. To put emphasis on the nonpartisan nature of this judgment, it was during the last Democratic administration that Carter stated in no uncertain terms that, “America does not at the moment have a functioning democracy.” That was before anyone knew of Donald Trump running for the presidency.
Plenty of data supports this assessment, such as American democracy recently being downgraded from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy”, according to the Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). But even long before that, others had noted that in the past these rising rates of high inequality were always a key indicator that a country had become a banana republic.
One person noted that this was what they were taught in public school a half century ago back when the United States had low inequality, a large middle class, and high economic mobility. It was taught as a way of comparing how the American economy was superior in the egalitarian American Dream it claimed to represent. Few at the time thought the United States would follow the example of the authoritarian regimes and puppet states our government put into power. It should have been known, though, that what a citizenry allows their government do to others will eventually and inevitably be done to the citizenry, first targeting the disadvantaged but eventually targeting everyone (as Martin Niemöller famously explained about those in power finally coming for him).
It’s very much been a bipartisan failure of democracy or, if you prefer, a bipartisan success of cynical realpolitik. The ruling elite are doing great, for the moment. And the general public have been kept ignorant and distracted, resulting in a lack of urgency. But all of that is irrelevant, as far as it matters for the disempowered and disfranchised majority — that is irrelevant until the inevitable collapse or revolt. It is with such a dire threat looming on the horizon that the ruling elite further push disinformation and spectacle.
Most Americans have no idea how bad it is has gotten. For example, Americans think economic inequality is far lower than it actually is and yet the actual levels are far higher than what most Americans believe should be tolerable. As soon as Americans realize they’ve been lied to by their corporatocratic government and corporatist media, that will be the end of the charade and the ending will come quickly once it starts. On an intuitive level, Americans already grasp it doesn’t all add up. And this can be seen in every aspect of our society.
Propaganda, no matter how successful, can only deny reality for so long. High inequality, in creating rampant stress and anxiety, is a problem that solves itself by destabilizing the entire system. There is no example in history of a high inequality society that didn’t either destroy itself or else became more authoritarian in delaying collapse, but in either case it involves a sharp increase of public unrest and revolt along with violence and death. The Bernie Sanders’ campaign was a last ditch effort to avoid this fate. But now we are too far gone. We will be forced to ride this out to its bitter end.
To be clear, Sanders isn’t a socialist nor are most of his supporters. Sanders is a rather moderate social democrat who is to the right of the old school New Deal Democrats, not coming close to the large-scale reforms and high tax rates supported by presidents in both parties earlier last century. It isn’t only populists threatening the powerful. Even among the powerful, there are those who don’t see the situation as sustainable.
Nick Hanauer, a wealthy businessman and early investor in Amazon, has warned about the pitchforks coming for the plutocrats. He makes this warning because, as with Adam Smith, he knows inequality is bad for any hope of a free society and free economy. And Hanauer is talking not only to Trump-like Republicans but also to major Democratic political operators such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. “They’re super exploitive—just unacceptable,” Hanauer says. “What I can guarantee you is that Jeff Bezos is not going to change those things in the absence of somebody putting essentially a gun to his head and forcing him to do it.”
That is one plutocratic Democrat talking about another plutocratic Democrat. If there is that much harsh disagreement among the ruling elite in the once considered working class party, imagine the outrage from below that is coming when civil unrest boils over. Instead of listening to the likes of Hanauer and Sanders (and earlier Nader), we got the corruption of the Clinton Democrats whose power-mongering created the monster in power now, Donald Trump. Don’t forget that Trump who, before becoming a Republican president, was a Clinton Democrat and close friend and supporter of the Clinton family. All of these people represent the splintering of the Democratic Party, splintering along the lines of populism and plutocracy.
As a Silicon Valley pastor of a church in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, Gregory Stevens bluntly spoke of the wealthy elites of the liberal class who, I might add, heavily fund the Democratic Party. The tech industry has become the core support behind the Democratic neoliberalism of the Clinton Democrats, endlessly espousing empty rhetoric about social justice but never willing to confront the actual problems that they profit from. Here is what Stevens said, according to Sam Levin in a Guardian piece:
“I believe Palo Alto is a ghetto of wealth, power, and elitist liberalism by proxy, meaning that many community members claim to want to fight for social justice issues, but that desire doesn’t translate into action,” Stevens wrote, lamenting that it was impossible for low-income people to live in the city. “The insane wealth inequality and the ignorance toward actual social justice is absolutely terrifying.”
He later added: “The tech industry is motivated by endless profit, elite status, rampant greed, and the myth that their technologies are somehow always improving the world.”
Remind me again how societal decline is all the fault of Donald Trump and his co-conspirators. The only thing that makes Trump different from the Clintons is that he is more honest about his motivations.
Below are two views. The first was recently written under our present Trump administration. And the second was written under the Obama administration. The problems described have been continuously worsening under administrations from both parties going back decades. These kinds of warnings go even further back, as expressed in the predictions by the American Revolutionaries and Founders known as the Anti-Federalists. It’s long been known what kind of society this is and, unless it was changed, what kind of society it would become.
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The Coming Collapse
by Chris Hedges
The Trump administration did not rise, prima facie, like Venus on a half shell from the sea. Donald Trump is the result of a long process of political, cultural and social decay. He is a product of our failed democracy. The longer we perpetuate the fiction that we live in a functioning democracy, that Trump and the political mutations around him are somehow an aberrant deviation that can be vanquished in the next election, the more we will hurtle toward tyranny. The problem is not Trump. It is a political system, dominated by corporate power and the mandarins of the two major political parties, in which we don’t count. We will wrest back political control by dismantling the corporate state, and this means massive and sustained civil disobedience, like that demonstrated by teachers around the country this year. If we do not stand up we will enter a new dark age.
The Democratic Party, which helped build our system of inverted totalitarianism, is once again held up by many on the left as the savior. Yet the party steadfastly refuses to address the social inequality that led to the election of Trump and the insurgency by Bernie Sanders. It is deaf, dumb and blind to the very real economic suffering that plagues over half the country. It will not fight to pay workers a living wage. It will not defy the pharmaceutical and insurance industries to provide Medicare for all. It will not curb the voracious appetite of the military that is disemboweling the country and promoting the prosecution of futile and costly foreign wars. It will not restore our lost civil liberties, including the right to privacy, freedom from government surveillance, and due process. It will not get corporate and dark money out of politics. It will not demilitarize our police and reform a prison system that has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners although the United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population. It plays to the margins, especially in election seasons, refusing to address substantive political and social problems and instead focusing on narrow cultural issues like gay rights, abortion and gun control in our peculiar species of anti-politics.
This is a doomed tactic, but one that is understandable. The leadership of the party, the Clintons, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Tom Perez, are creations of corporate America. In an open and democratic political process, one not dominated by party elites and corporate money, these people would not hold political power. They know this. They would rather implode the entire system than give up their positions of privilege. And that, I fear, is what will happen. The idea that the Democratic Party is in any way a bulwark against despotism defies the last three decades of its political activity. It is the guarantor of despotism. […]
But the warnings from the architects of our failed democracy against creeping fascism, Madeleine Albright among them, are risible. They show how disconnected the elites have become from the zeitgeist. None of these elites have credibility. They built the edifice of lies, deceit and corporate pillage that made Trump possible. And the more Trump demeans these elites, and the more they cry out like Cassandras, the more he salvages his disastrous presidency and enables the kleptocrats pillaging the country as it swiftly disintegrates.
The press is one of the principal pillars of Trump’s despotism. It chatters endlessly like 18th-century courtiers at the court of Versailles about the foibles of the monarch while the peasants lack bread. It drones on and on and on about empty topics such as Russian meddling and a payoff to a porn actress that have nothing to do with the daily hell that, for many, defines life in America. It refuses to critique or investigate the abuses by corporate power, which has destroyed our democracy and economy and orchestrated the largest transfer of wealth upward in American history. The corporate press is a decayed relic that, in exchange for money and access, committed cultural suicide. And when Trump attacks it over “fake news,” he expresses, once again, the deep hatred of all those the press ignores. The press worships the idol of Mammon as slavishly as Trump does. It loves the reality-show presidency. The press, especially the cable news shows, keeps the lights on and the cameras rolling so viewers will be glued to a 21st-century version of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” It is good for ratings. It is good for profits. But it accelerates the decline. […]
As a foreign correspondent I covered collapsed societies, including the former Yugoslavia. It is impossible for any doomed population to grasp how fragile the decayed financial, social and political system is on the eve of implosion. All the harbingers of collapse are visible: crumbling infrastructure; chronic underemployment and unemployment; the indiscriminate use of lethal force by police; political paralysis and stagnation; an economy built on the scaffolding of debt; nihilistic mass shootings in schools, universities, workplaces, malls, concert venues and movie theaters; opioid overdoses that kill some 64,000 people a year; an epidemic of suicides; unsustainable military expansion; gambling as a desperate tool of economic development and government revenue; the capture of power by a tiny, corrupt clique; censorship; the physical diminishing of public institutions ranging from schools and libraries to courts and medical facilities; the incessant bombardment by electronic hallucinations to divert us from the depressing sight that has become America and keep us trapped in illusions. We suffer the usual pathologies of impending death. I would be happy to be wrong. But I have seen this before. I know the warning signs. All I can say is get ready.
by Matt Taibbi
Kindle Locations 67-160
(see more here)
The other thing here is an idea that being that poor means you should naturally give up any ideas you might have about privacy or dignity. The welfare applicant is less of a person for being financially dependent (and a generally unwelcome immigrant from a poor country to boot), so she naturally has fewer rights.
No matter how offensive the image is, it has a weird logic that’s irresistible to many if not most Americans. Even if we don’t agree with it, we all get it.
And that’s the interesting part, the part where we all get it. More and more often, we all make silent calculations about who is entitled to what rights, and who is not. It’s not as simple as saying everyone is the same under the law anymore. We all know there’s another layer to it now.
As a very young man, I studied the Russian language in Leningrad, in the waning days of the Soviet empire. One of the first things I noticed about that dysfunctional wreck of a lunatic country was that it had two sets of laws, one written and one unwritten. The written laws were meaningless, unless you violated one of the unwritten laws, at which point they became all-important.
So, for instance, possessing dollars or any kind of hard currency was technically forbidden, yet I never met a Soviet citizen who didn’t have them. The state just happened to be very selective about enforcing its anticommerce laws. So the teenage farsovshik (black market trader) who sold rabbit hats in exchange for blue jeans outside my dorm could be arrested for having three dollars in his pocket, but a city official could openly walk down Nevsky Avenue with a brand-new Savile Row suit on his back, and nothing would happen.
Everyone understood this hypocrisy implicitly, almost at a cellular level, far beneath thought. For a Russian in Soviet times, navigating every moment of citizenship involved countless silent calculations of this type. But the instant people were permitted to think about all this and question the unwritten rules out loud, it was like the whole country woke up from a dream , and the system fell apart in a matter of months . That happened before my eyes in 1990 and 1991, and I never forgot it.
Now I feel like I’m living that process in reverse, watching my own country fall into a delusion in the same way the Soviets once woke up from one. People are beginning to become disturbingly comfortable with a kind of official hypocrisy. Bizarrely, for instance, we’ve become numb to the idea that rights aren’t absolute but are enjoyed on a kind of sliding scale.
To be extreme about it, on the far end—like, say, in the villages of Pakistan or Afghanistan—we now view some people as having no rights at all. They can be assassinated or detained indefinitely outside any sort of legal framework, from the Geneva conventions on down.
Even here at home, that concept is growing. After the Boston marathon bombings, there was briefly a controversy where we wondered aloud whether the Chechen suspects would be read Miranda rights upon capture. No matter how angry you were about those bombings—and as a Boston native, I wanted whoever was responsible thrown in the deepest hole we have—it was a fascinating moment in our history. It was the first time when we actually weren’t sure if an American criminal suspect would get full access to due process of law. Even on television, the blow-dried talking heads didn’t know the answer. We had to think about it.
Of course, on the other end of the spectrum are the titans of business, the top executives at companies like Goldman and Chase and GlaxoSmithKline, men and women who essentially as a matter of policy now will never see the inside of a courtroom, almost no matter what crimes they may have committed in the course of their business. This is obviously an outrage, and the few Americans who paid close attention to news stories like the deferred prosecution of HSBC for laundering drug money, or the nonprosecution of the Swiss bank UBS for fixing interest rates, were beside themselves with anger over the unfairness of it all.
But the truly dark thing about those stories is that somewhere far beneath the intellect, on a gut level, those who were paying attention understood why those stories panned out the way they did. Just as we very quickly learned to accept the idea that America now tortures and assassinates certain foreigners (and perhaps the odd American or three) as a matter of routine, and have stopped marching on Washington to protest the fact that these things are done in our names, we’ve also learned to accept the implicit idea that some people have simply more rights than others. Some people go to jail, and others just don’t. And we all get it.
I was originally attracted to this subject because, having spent years covering white-collar corruption for Rolling Stone, I was interested in the phenomenon of high-powered white-collar criminals completely avoiding individual punishment for what appeared to be very serious crimes. It’s become a cliché by now, but since 2008, no high-ranking executive from any financial institution has gone to jail, not one, for any of the systemic crimes that wiped out 40 percent of the world’s wealth. Even now, after JPMorgan Chase agreed to a settlement north of $13 billion for a variety of offenses and the financial press threw itself up in arms over the government’s supposedly aggressive new approach to regulating Wall Street, the basic principle held true: Nobody went to jail. Not one person.
Why was that? I quickly realized that it was impossible to answer that question without simultaneously looking at the question of who does go to jail in this country, and why. This was especially true when the numbers were so stark, zero-to-a-few on one hand, millions on the other.
Finding the answer to some of this turns out to be easy, just simple math. Big companies have big lawyers, most street criminals do not, and prosecutors dread waging long wars against bottomless-pocketed megabanks when they can score win after easy win against common drug dealers, car thieves, and the like. After winning enough of these blowout victories, the justice bureaucracy starts drifting inexorably toward the no-sweat ten-second convictions and away from the expensive years-long battles of courtroom attrition.
Unquestionably, however, something else is at work, something that cuts deeper into the American psyche. We have a profound hatred of the weak and the poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and successful, and we’re building a bureaucracy to match those feelings.
Buried in our hatred of the dependent, in Mitt Romney’s lambasting of the 47 percent, in the water carrier’s contempt for the water drinker, is a huge national psychological imperative. Many of our national controversies are on some level debates about just exactly how much we should put up with from the “nonproducing” citizenry. Even the George Zimmerman trial devolved into a kind of national discussion over whether Trayvon Martin was the kind of person who had the right to walk down the street unmolested, or whether he was a member of a nuisance class, a few pegs down on that sliding scale of rights, who should have submitted to … well, whatever it was that happened.
The weird thing is that the common justification for the discrepancy in prison statistics—the glaring percentage of incarcerated people who are either poor, nonwhite, or both—is that the ghetto denizens are the people who commit the crimes, that their neighborhoods are where the crime is at.
And the common justification for the failure to prosecute executives in corrupt corporations for any crimes that they might commit is that their offenses aren’t really crimes per se but mere ethical violations, morally unfortunate acts not punishable by law. President Obama himself would hint at this in an infamous 60 Minutes interview.
But in practice, as I would find out in a years-long journey through the American justice system, things turn out to be completely different.
Yes, there’s a lot of violent crime in poor neighborhoods. And yes, that’s where most of your gun violence happens.
But for most of the poor people who are being sent away, whether it’s for a day or for ten years, their prison lives begin when they’re jailed for the most minor offenses imaginable. Can you imagine spending a night in jail for possessing a pink Hi-Liter marker? For rolling a tobacco cigarette? How about for going to the corner store to buy ketchup without bringing an ID?
They are sent away because they do the same things rich people do at some time in their lives, usually as teenagers—get drunk and fall down, use drugs, take a leak in an alley, take a shortcut through someone’s yard, fall asleep in a subway car, scream at a boyfriend or girlfriend, hop a fence. Only when they do these things, they’re surrounded by a thousand police, watching their every move.
Meanwhile the supposedly minor violations that aren’t worth throwing bankers in jail for—they turn out to be not so minor. When an employee at the aforementioned British banking giant HSBC—whose executives were ultimately handed a no-jail settlement for the biggest money-laundering case in the history of banking—started looking into how people on terrorist or criminal watch lists opened accounts at his company, he found something odd. In many cases, commas or periods were being surreptitiously added to names, so that they would elude the bank’s computer screening systems.
“That’s something that could only have been done on purpose, by a bank employee,” he said.
What deserves a bigger punishment—someone with a college education who knowingly helps a gangster or a terrorist open a bank account? Or a high school dropout who falls asleep on the F train?
The new America says it’s the latter. It’s come around to that point of view at the end of a long evolutionary process, in which the rule of law has slowly been replaced by giant idiosyncratic bureaucracies that are designed to criminalize failure, poverty, and weakness on the one hand, and to immunize strength, wealth, and success on the other.
We still have real jury trials, honest judges, and free elections, all the superficial characteristics of a functional, free democracy. But underneath that surface is a florid and malevolent bureaucracy that mostly (not absolutely, but mostly) keeps the rich and the poor separate through thousands of tiny, scarcely visible inequities.
For instance, while the trials may be free and fair, unfair calculations are clearly involved in who gets indicted for crimes, and who does not. Or: Which defendant gets put in jail, and which one gets away with a fine? Which offender ends up with a criminal record, and which one gets to settle with the state without admitting wrongdoing? Which thief will pay restitution out of his own pocket, and which one will be allowed to have the company he works for pay the tab? Which neighborhoods have thousands of police roaming the streets, and which ones don’t have any at all?
This is where the new despotism is hidden, in these thousands of arbitrary decisions that surround our otherwise transparent system of real jury trials and carefully enumerated suspects’ rights. This vast extrademocratic mechanism, it turns out, is made up of injustices big and small, from sweeping national concepts like Eric Holder’s Collateral Consequences plan, granting situational leniency to “systemically important” companies, to smaller, more localized outrages like New York City prosecutors subverting speedy trial rules in order to extract guilty pleas from poor defendants who can’t make bail.
Most people understand this on some level, but they don’t really know how bad it has gotten, because they live entirely on one side of the equation. If you grew up well off, you probably don’t know how easy it is for poor people to end up in jail, often for the same dumb things you yourself did as a kid.
And if you’re broke and have limited experience in the world, you probably have no idea of the sheer scale of the awesome criminal capers that the powerful and politically connected can get away with, right under the noses of the rich-people police.
This is a story that doesn’t need to be argued. You just need to see it, and it speaks for itself. Only we’ve arranged things so that the problem is basically invisible to most people, unless you go looking for it.
I went looking for it.
4 thoughts on “The Coming Collapse”
“In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.”
Hunter S. Thompson