A Legacy of Ruins: Global Capitalism and Plutocracy


Johnathan Israel in his latest work on the Enlightenment and the ideas and people involved in the French Revolution comes to the conclusion that there were three main ideological systems at play during this great revolt: the first, a democratic republican revolution; second, a moderate Enlightenment consisting of constitutional monarchism that invoked Montesquieu and the British model as its criteria of legitimacy; and, last, an authoritarian populism prefiguring modern fascism. As he’ll remind us these “distinct impulses proved entirely incompatible politically and culturally, as well as ideologically, and remained locked in often ferocious conflict throughout” (p. 695).1

This combination of democratic Republicanism, reactionary Monarchism, and authoritarian populist fascism seem to flow through much of the past two hundred years, and have yet to resolve themselves into anything like a peaceful solution. When I look around my own nation, America, I see in its surface mythologies the bid to be a democratic Republic. Yet, when one looks under the hood, seeks in the depths of government and our economic layers of power we discover anything but a democratic Republic. No. Instead what we discover is this sense of a displaced or inverted totalitarianism along with the attendent fundamentalist populism that works as its inner logic of the media to invoke fear in the populace through an economics of war and terror. A dysfunctional society full of racism and sexism that since 9/11 has lived under the sign of ancient fear, war and madness: a nation that has become so normalized and ubiquitous in its acceptance of this ideological construct that most of its citizenry perceive this ‘state of the exception’ as both natural and life itself.

As Jean-Pierre Dupuy in Economy and the Future: A Crisis of Faith recently said our modern society, entirely dominated by Economy, is in grave and imminent danger of perishing from an evil that they themselves have produced. Politicians, no matter that every last one of them is bewildered and bamboozled, ought at least be able to grasp one key insight of economic thought, which worked out a theory of self-organizing complex systems long before this type of explanation became part of the standard repertoire of the physical and biological sciences during the second half of the twentieth century: self-organizing complex systems are capable of producing what are called emergent phenomena. These phenomena give the impression of being intentional, but in fact they are subjectless processes. It is altogether remarkable that the same expression, “subjectless processes,” should have been used by both the champion of economic neoliberalism, Friedrich Hayek, and the father of structural Marxism, Louis Althusser. At the outset I likened “the markets” to a sluggish, craven, and dumb beast. But they might also be pictured as a gelatinous and porous blob (The Blob was a famous horror film, as it happens), dumb as well, but extremely dangerous, always lying in wait, ready to swallow up individuals and whole peoples— without, however, having the least ill intention toward any of them.2

Since that fatal falling of the towers in New York City we are drawn back again and again to the falling of the Bastille. Both were symbols of revolt, yet quite different revolts. One was the revolt of a people against the tyrants of its Monarchical and aristocratic heritage, a people seeking to free itself of these powerful elites and their King. The revolt on 9/11 was a sign of the Third World and the populist fundamentalism within its regions striking out against the Empire of moneyed plutocracy and its visible presence of power – the symbol of corporate America: a system of power that is so pervasive and ubiquitous in the world that it permeates every aspect of our global economies and civilization. We speak of Capitalism and its financial and technics as that hidden force that being used by a new aristocracy of money and power to enforce its governance not only of one specific nation but of all nations on a planetary scale.

C. Wright Mills in his classic work The Power Elite would tell us that the powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family, and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern. ‘Great changes’ are beyond their control, but affect their conduct and outlook none the less. The very framework of modern society confines them to projects not their own, but from every side, such changes now press upon the men and women of the mass society, who accordingly feel that they are without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power.3

This sense of a determining force, a greater power or framework that confines the ordinary citizen and circumscribes both his mind and actions and pacifies her as much as it baffles and brings with it this sense of powerlessness in the face of power is at the heart of our economic decay and degradation. Our planetary civilization is in the midst of both environmental and economic, spiritual and political turmoil ready to fall into the abyss of chaos unless we act. Is there someone behind this malaise, the social and political chaos? If so, who? Of course Mills would tell us who – there is a power elite composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women; they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences. Whether they do or do not make such decisions is less important than the fact that they do occupy such pivotal positions: their failure to act, their failure to make decisions, is itself an act that is often of greater consequence than the decisions they do make. For they are in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society. They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure, in which are now centered the effective means of the power and the wealth and the celebrity which they enjoy. (Mills, pp. 3-4)

The truth of it is that we are constrained and ruled by a mode of governance that is not always visible as such. It has a long and sordid history. Oligarchy. Regardless of political context or historical period, oligarchs are defined consistently as actors who claim or own concentrated personal wealth and are uniquely empowered by it. They are a social and political by-product of extreme material stratification in societies, and such stratification is inherently conflictual: oligarchs desire to keep their fortunes, while others threaten to take it. Oligarchy refers to the politics of defending wealth….4 Some have reserved an even more specific term for our late capitalist form of Oligarchy. Plutonomy:  “At the heart of plutonomy is income inequality,” which is made possible by “capitalist-friendly governments and tax regimes.” A danger to this arrangement is that “personal taxation rates could rise – dividend, capital gains, and inheritance tax rises would hurt the plutonomy.” (Winters, p. 212) So the plutocrats lobby the governments to enact laws that favor them, support candidates who will enact these favorable laws through campaign contributions and other forms of bribery. And, even when laws that supposedly protect the government from such unlawful practices there are legal teams devoted to countering and discovering endless loopholes to countermand and slip through the chinks in governmental bureaucratic red-tape.

To take the example of the U.S. again one discovers a large Income Defense Industry, which assists plutocrats in retaining billions of dollars in income annually. This expression of minority power operates within a liberal democratic framework, but almost entirely off the national radar screen and through means that cannot be understood by representation, voting, or pluralist politics. It is a story not of polyarchy, but of oligarchy alloyed with polyarchy. The U.S. case illuminates how disarmed oligarchs who do not rule can secure their vital interests in a context that is materially stratified and politically democratic.(Winters, pp. 272-273)

As another defender of the plutocracy noted membership in today’s Book of Gold is more subtle than being included in a list of the aristocracy, or even inheriting a trust fund. In our increasingly complex economy, the real Book of Gold is a degree from an elite university, and those are increasingly the province of the global super-elite. Indeed, statistics have shown that graduating from college is more closely linked to having wealthy parents than it is to high test scores in high school: class matters more than going to class.5 This sense that the upper 1% have become fully class conscious and have circumscribed the perimeters of their enclaves, fencing off the lower classes and developing systems of inclusion/exclusions is apparent at every level of their systematic defense wealth industry.

As Glenn Greenwald will tell us several factors go into play in the vase wealth industrial complex.  First, the elites’ exemption from the rule of law has been strengthened at exactly the same time that the law has become an increasingly draconian instrument of punishment for the rest of Americans— particularly the poor and racial minorities. Not only does the law fail to equalize the playing field; it perpetuates and even generates tremendous social inequality.6 (Greenwald, p. 13)

Second, though unequal application of the law has always been pervasive in American society, until recently such inequality was regarded as a problem: something to be deplored and, if possible, corrected. Today, however, substantial factions in our political culture explicitly renounce the principle of legal equality itself. It is now quite common for American political discourse to include arguments expressly justifying the elites’ legal impunity and openly calling for radically different treatment under the law for various classes of people based on their power, status, and wealth. (Greenwald, p. 14)

Joseph E. Stiglitz in his The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future argued that the dark side of market economy as practiced in the United States has been its growing inequality as well as the country’s economic sustainability, fraying at the edges: the rich were getting richer, while the rest were facing hardships that seemed inconsonant with the American dream.7 As he testifies the wealth industrial complex that defends the Plutocrats hold the highest seats in government, media, and economics. These individual defenders of the current level of inequality claim that although it’s not inevitable, doing anything about this inequality  would be just too costly. They believe that for capitalism to work its wonders, high inequality is an inevitable, even necessary feature of the economy. After all, those who work hard should be rewarded, and have to be, if they are to make the efforts and the investments from which all benefit. Some inequality is indeed inevitable. Some individuals will work harder and longer than others, and any well-functioning economic system has to reward them for these efforts. But this book shows that both the magnitude of America’s inequality today and the way it is generated actually undermine growth and impair efficiency. Part of the reason for this is that much of America’s inequality is the result of market distortions, with incentives directed not at creating new wealth but at taking it from others.(Steglitz, p. 6)

Zygmunt Bauman discovered the secret success of these Plutocrats and Oligarchies was bound up with their ability to manipulate insecurity in the economic, political, and social arenas:

Uncertainty, insecurity’s principal cause, is by far the most decisive tool of power – indeed, its very substance. As Crozier himself put it, whoever is ‘close to the sources of uncertainty’ rules. This is so because whoever is cast on the receiving end of uncertainty (more to the point, whoever is confronted with an adversary whose moves cannot be predicted and defy expectations) is disabled and disarmed in their efforts to resist and fight back against discrimination. Groups or categories with limited options or no options to choose from, forced for that reason to follow a monotonous and utterly predictable routine, stand no chance in their power struggle with protagonists who are mobile, free to choose, lavishly supplied with options, and so essentially unpredictable. It is flexible against fixed combat: flexible groups, those with many options to choose from, are a constant source of a disabling uncertainty, and so an overwhelming sense of insecurity, for those fixed in a routine – while the flexible don’t need to count possible moves and responses by the fixed among the risks to their own position and its prospects.8

This is why plutocracies seek larger governmental regulatory systems to maintain command and control, to regulate both the behavioral and intellectual aspects of a nation’s life cycles. Controlling the institutions that maintain the life-cycle of the humans in that nation allows them to displace insecurity with securitization that constrain and monitor the world of inequality.  Yet, in many ways with the release of capital into the global arena the growth of inequality has now spread everywhere unilaterally. As Bauman will note, the countries that released capital into the ‘space of flows’ find themselves, however, in a situation in which they themselves turn into the objects of uncertainties generated by global finance, and in which their ability to act falls victim to the new power deficit – obliging them, in the absence of global regulation, to retreat step by step from the protection which, in the times preceding the divorce of power from politics and the privatization of uncertainty, they used to promise (and most of the time deliver) to their own native poor. (Bauman, KL 1005)

The new plutocracies are no longer bound to national territories or economies, no longer can they be constrained by local systems of checks and balances that used to bring them to ground and break the monopolies of power. Instead the new plutocracies live in the no-man’s land of the global ‘politics free’ zones, capital accumulated in the ‘developed’ parts of the world are free to recreate in distant places the conditions that ruled in their countries of origin in the times of ‘primitive accumulation’; with a proviso, however, that this time round the bosses are ‘absentee landlords’, thousands of miles away from the labour they hire. The bosses have unilaterally broken the mutuality of dependence while freely multiplying the numbers of those exposed to the consequences of the bosses’ own new freedoms, and even more the number of those who crave to be so exposed. (Bauman, Kl 1010)

So here we sit in the ruins of Capital, in the rich north where the Fordist worlds are now rusting and decaying around us, where their homes in Detroit and other cities… As Michael Snyder said in an article “If you want to know what the future of America is going to be like, just look at the city of Detroit.” Detroit used to be  the greatest manufacturing city the world had ever seen, and the rest of the globe looked at Detroit with a sense of awe and wonder. The home of Rock & Roll and R&B. Detroit-native Bill Haley ushered in the rock and roll era with the release of “Rock Around The Clock.” But now it is known for scenes of desolation and decay.  It is full of vandalized homes, abandoned schools and empty factories. As Barry Yeoman describes it now:

It’s hard to describe the city’s physical landscape without producing what Detroiters call “ruin porn.” Brick houses with bays and turrets sit windowless or boarded up. Whole blocks, even clusters of blocks, have been bulldozed. Retail strips have been reduced to a dollar store here, a storefront church there, and a whole lot of plywood in between. Not a single chain supermarket remains.

Yet, as Arianna Huffington in her impassioned Third World America its not just that we are in ruins, but that the infrastructure that has sustained America is decaying, rusting away, crumbling apart at the edges in both cities and the rural areas. One of the keys here in the U.S. as well as the planet she tells us is the simple element of water itself:

Let’s start this examination of what’s ailing America with that most elemental of elements: water. No society can survive without clean water. It’s essential for life and civilization (imagine the Roman Empire without its aqueducts). Clean, fresh water is so essential that many believe that, in the coming decades, wars will be fought over it.9

A near future popular account of this issue arises in Paolo Bacigalupi new book Water Knife. This sense of impending doom spreading across our barren landscapes, of heat and dreary days ahead all come out in this dystopian nightmare of our near future. Reading the novel set in the Southwest I was reminded of Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water which describes the massive history of water development that encompasses the whole story of the West, from start to present. Yet, what Reisner describes in his story is also the fatal aspect of this history, that every civilization founded upon irrigation has always ended in defeat, and almost certainly due to the sudden and permanent despoliation of irrigated agricultural soil through concentration of salts, which is the inevitable result of irrigation. No previous irrigation civilization has ever worked on such a grand scale, or with soil already so alkaline, as ours. Death by salinity is happening with alarming rapidity in the American West even now. The end of agriculture as we know it in the West is coming, and coming soon; all the experts know it; nothing is being done about it.

Against this background Bacigalupi will construct his dystopian critique of our own world where water equals power and the plutocrats rule and horde the remnants of this element for their own benefit.  Bacigalupi delivers us to a near future Southwest in which America has fallen into its death throes and states vie with each other for the last remaining resources of the ancient Colorado River basin.  A world of migrants from economically decaying and drought-ridden states such as Texas and other realms become outlaws and illegals who are seen as invaders rather than tourists. Federal Laws now prohibit interstate transport and severely restricts movement between states by American citizens. The Southwest is a contested environment where China and other nations have invested in arcologies, self-sustaining habitats for the Plutocrats, where they live amid the verdant gardens and oasis, while the rest of the Southwest’s predominantly impoverished residents live in slum-worlds of ever depleted water holes fighting each other in survivalist mode.

Is this our future? Is this the world coming at us? Have we entered the Age of Scarcity? Shall we prepare for the endgame of civilization? While our technopundits spout the beauties of posthuman or transhuman wagers the rest of us must realize that what the rich and powerful Plutocrats have in mind is ever further degradation for the great 99% while the 1% will live amidst the luxurious enclaves of what Mike Davis calls ‘evil paradises’:

On a planet where more than 2 billion people subsist on two dollars or less a day, these dreamworlds enflame desires—for infinite consumption, total social exclusion and physical security, and architectural monumentality—that are clearly incompatible with the ecological and moral survival of humanity.10

Davis puts it starkly. “If Benjamin evoked a society that “dreamed itself waking,” these gilded dreamworlds have no alarm clocks; they are willful, narcissistic withdrawals from the tragedies overtaking the planet. The rich will simply hide out in their castles and television sets, desperately trying to consume all the good things of the earth in their lifetimes. Indeed, by their very existence, the indoor ski slopes of Dubai and private bison herds of Ted Turner represent that ruse of reason by which the neoliberal order both acknowledges and dismisses the fact that the current trajectory of human existence is unsustainable.” (Davis, KL 246-250)

Welcome to the endgame of capitalism, where the rich and powerful lock themselves into evil paradises of luxury and play decadent games of illusory reality, while the rest of us labor in the heat-death of a dying planet on the edge of a rusted and decaying civilization. Is this truly what will happen? Will we wake up and realize there might be another way forward? A path toward resistance and revolt against these decadent plutocrats who glory in the Hollywood glamor and trivial celebrity of Reality TV? Is this really what we have to look forward too? Resistance begins in admitting there is a problem, then in admitting that we need a solution. The path of resistance is not the path of least resistance, not a flowing with the rivers to the sea; but, rather is a path against the tide, against the grain, a hard path that is fraught with self-sacrifice, sweat, tears, and even… yes, blood (if it takes that turn). Resistance  is engaged in defiant delegitimization of existing and potential domination but without any prospect of a final outcome in the guise of a revolutionary or reformist result or solution. As reciprocals, domination and defiance are engaged in a perpetual struggle in which resistance can never rest but must adopt a fresh posture with respect to a strengthened counter-resistance. The politics of resistance is disillusioned and without end, one that can claim a lifetime or a life for its pursuit of justice and that requires constant courage, fortitude and prudence. It accompanies the modern adventure of freedom and possibility, but in its ambivalent and ambiguous margins. Yet the defiant life is not negative, not just the reaction to the ruses of an eternally renewed effort to dominate nested within freedom itself, but one with its own necessities, its own affirmations and its own joy.11

Sometimes resistance begins with a smile, a joke, a glance that says: “I understand what you’re going through. Let’s work together against this oppressive power. Let’s stand together united against bigotry, hate, and all those who oppress us. Let’s stand for human dignity and justice in the face of degradation and despair. Let’s walk together hand in hand against the dark ones who seek to enslave us in their cold worlds. Let’s build a new more living world where humans and the planet become habitable and sustainable. Let us enjoy life again not in some hedonism of illusory pleasure but rather in the stark truth of jouissance. Knowing that there is both pleasure and pain in our lives and that we need both to have a full life.”

Walt Whitman A Song of Joys:

O the joy of my spirit–it is uncaged–it darts like lightning!
No fumes, no ennui, no more complaints or scornful criticisms,

 To these proud laws of the air, the water and the ground, proving
 my interior soul impregnable,
 And nothing exterior shall ever take command of me again!

1. Israel, Jonathan (2014-03-23). Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Dupuy, Jean-Pierre (2014-10-01). Economy and the Future: A Crisis of Faith (Studies in Violence, Mimesis, & Culture) (Kindle Locations 2718-2727). Michigan State University Press. Kindle Edition.
3. Mills, C. Wright (1999-12-13). MILLS:POWER ELITE 2E P (p. 3). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
4. Winters (2011-05-04). Oligarchy (p. 211). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
5. Freeland, Chrystia (2012-10-11). Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (p. 283). Penguin Press HC, The. Kindle Edition.
6. Greenwald, Glenn (2011-11-11). With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
7. Stiglitz, Joseph E. (2012-06-11). The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (p. 2). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
8. Bauman, Zygmunt (2013-04-18). Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities in a Global Age (Kindle Locations 840-849). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
9. Arianna Huffington (2010-09-07). Third World America (p. 100). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
10.   (2011-07-16). Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism (Kindle Locations 224-226). New Press, The. Kindle Edition.
11. Caygill, Howard (2013-10-24). On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance (Kindle Locations 4518-4525). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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