Dictators, Hustling, Neoliberalism and Guarantees

There area few towering intellects whose work has been utterly intertwined with this blog project. Often I refer to them over and over without even thinking about their impact. They include the living such as Michael Hudson, Steve Keen, Chris Ryan, Ran Prieur, Morris Berman, Mark Blyth, Nate Hagens, Blair Fix and countless others.

They include the departed such as Karl Polanyi, Thorstein Veblen, Marvin Harris, Lewis Mumford, and many others.

Now, David Graeber is among the departed. If you search through the archives, you will see just how profound an influence he was.

Graeber understood the real value of anthropology: as lens through which we could see our society as something fundamentally constructed and malleable, and how it was always a choice on how it operated.

“We’re all already communists when working on a common projects, all already anarchists when we solve problems without recourse to lawyers or police, all revolutionaries when we make something genuinely new.”

“There’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt – above all, because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong.”

“The ultimate, hidden truth of the world, is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”


I’m sick of writing about current events. I don’t often like to do it, but I felt compelled by the events unfolding on my doorstep. I’m going to move on, but before I do, I’ll mention a few things I noticed this week.

I thought this was interesting. Both of these things happened this week, in fact, on the very same day! (September 3):

The Venezuelan government of President Nicolas Maduro said Wednesday it had invited the leaders of the United Nations and European Union to send observers to monitor parliamentary elections in December.

Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Twitter that a letter had been sent to UN chief Antonio Guterres and EU top diplomat Josep Borrell, outlining “the broad electoral guarantees agreed for the upcoming parliamentary elections,” and inviting them to send observers.

Venezuela’s Maduro invites UN, EU observers to December elections (France 24)

Meanwhile, in the the United States, the so-called “leader of the free world”:

President Donald Trump on Wednesday appeared to encourage people in North Carolina to vote twice — once by mail and once in person — during the November general election to purportedly double check that their initial vote was counted, which is already receiving push back from state election officials.

Americans can only vote once per election.

When Trump was asked by local news station WECT in Wilmington, North Carolina, whether he was confident in the state’s absentee voting system, the President launched into a somewhat rambling answer.

“Well, they’ll go out and they’ll go vote, and they’re going to have to go and check their vote by going to the poll and voting that way, because if it tabulates, then they won’t be able to do that,” Trump said on the tarmac in front of Air Force One. “So, let them send it in, and let them go vote, and if the system is as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote. If it isn’t tabulated, they won’t be able to vote. So that’s the way it is. And that’s what they should do.”

The President later told people to send in their ballots, saying, “Send them in strong, whether it’s solicited or unsolicited. The absentees are fine. You have to work to get them, you know.”

“And you send them in, but you go to vote. And if they haven’t counted it, you can vote. So that’s the way I feel,” he said.
Trump essentially encouraged voters to test the state’s voting system…

Trump appears to encourage North Carolinians to vote twice to test the system (CNN)

Now, I’m sure readers will pick up on the supreme irony here. We’re in the U.S. are constantly told that Nicolas Maduro is a dictator, and that the regime in Venezuela is illegitimate. Yet the above stories speak for themselves. The President of Venezuela is encouraging outside observers to come and monitor the elections in his country, which take place in December. Meanwhile, the President of the United States is actively encouraging his supporters to commit vote fraud, in addition to persistently raising doubts about the validity of the upcoming elections, which take place in November, at every opportunity. They even did this on the exact same day.

The differences couldn’t be more stark.

And yet the media did not report this. Why? Interestingly, the only mention I found of Maduro inviting U.N election observers in was the article listed above. It wasn’t in any other stories in either the U.S. or European media as far as I could tell. It’s like a total blackout, which ought to tell you something. In addition, the Twitter account Venezualanaysis was removed by Twitter, apparently for no reason whatsoever (it has since been restored).

Why is one country considered to be a democracy, and one a dictatorship? Based on the above stories, which, I ask you, is the real dictatorship? Which regime has more legitimacy? And you needn’t be a fan of the Maduro government to note the striking difference, either. I’m not defending it, just pointing out the hypocrisy and media bias. If you listen to the opponents of the Maduro government, which includes the majority of the Western press, you might see the following argument:

“If these elections take place, then President Nicolas Maduro will get the majority he wants in the National Assembly,” Sabine Kurtenbach, from the German Institute for Global and Area Studies in Hamburg, told DW. “He has changed the rules to favor candidates and parties that are loyal to his regime,” she said. “They are more likely to get seats. The opposition, which wants a change of government, doesn’t have a chance of winning.”

Venezuela’s opposition sees a ‘trap’ in Maduro’s preelection pardons (DW)

But, of course, this is exactly the same situation in the United States! Why isn’t DW pointing that out? The Republican party has behaved exactly—and I do mean exactly—the way Maduro is accused of behaving in Venezuela. They’re invalidated elections, stacked the court system, instituted one party rule, and stripped the opposition of their powers. Yet only one of these government is described as authoritarian or illegitimate.

The following graphic tells the story:

Wisconsin Republicans vote to curb incoming Democratic governor’s power (Axios)

Yet many are okay with this permanent minority rule, even while denouncing Venezuela. Why? Could it be (and I’m just asking the question here) that capitalist regimes are, by definition, legitimate, regardless of whether they are chosen by the people or not, while socialist regimes are always, by definition, illegitimate, no matter the will of the people?


I thought of a perfect thought experiment to illustrate the differences between the Democratic and Republican Parties today in the U.S. Here’s the experiment:

Imagine if President Trump walked outside to give a press conference one day and a seagull pooped on his shoulder.

Because of this grievous “insult” that made him look bad on TV, the president goes on a rant against seagulls. He demands that all seagulls must be killed and calls on his followers to eradicate seagulls wherever they may be found. He issues Tweets denouncing seagulls. All for the “crime” of making him look bad. Anyone who doesn’t hate seagulls is a “Leftist” or “Marxist” he declares.

Within minutes, all across the country, people are posting pictures of them killing seagulls. Videos are posted to TikTok of people bashing seagulls with baseball bats. People in red states pose with mountains of dead seagulls. Gun injuries would increase as Trump followers in the heartland unload on every seagull they find. The more all the non-Republicans denounce this behavior as absurd, the more enthusiastically seagulls are killed to “own the libs.”  “Dead seagulls bring leftist tears,” becomes a meme on Facebook, and pickup trucks become festooned with seagull corpses. Anyone who rightly sees such behavior as insane is branded as a “snowflake” or “politically correct.”

Be honest, can you imagine the above scenario actually taking place? I know I can.

Now, try to imagine Joe Biden doing the exact same thing. Can anyone imagine him doing that, or imagine Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters engaging in the exact same behavior en masse?

I’m sorry, I simply can’t.

The fact that you can seriously imagine such a ridiculous scenario taking place in America today tells you all you need to know about the current incarnation of the Republican Party.

Look, I’m not especially fond of Biden or the Democratic Party. In many ways they’re awful. But the above scenario illustrates a critical difference in the parties today, one that should not be overlooked or taken lightly.


I saw a tweet the other day. It said that the Democrats would have argued that the solution for slavery would be for the slave owners to be more diverse and include more people of color.

It’s a clever dig. But I think it’s a teachable moment for what neoliberalism is, and how it’s different than other approaches to governance.

If chattel slavery had been legal during the neoliberal era (i.e. today), the current incarnation of the Democratic Party would have advocated for market-based solutions. That is, the issue of slavery should be solved within the confines of the Market. What they would vigorously oppose would be making the practice illegal. Yes, slavery is certainly detestable, they would argue, but banning it would cause too much economic dislocation, they would say. It would end up actually harming the people you would be trying to help. We need to work within the Market framework.

The Republicans, presumably, would be totally on board with slavery.

So the Democrats would propose things like regulations that would curb the worst excesses of slavery, as long as the slave owners didn’t object too much. No more beatings and whippings. Decent food and shelter. Some “common sense” regulations for slave markets—things like that.

Their main argument would be that the Market itself will bring an end to slavery through the workings of natural market forces. No intervention is required! The natural working of free markets would make slavery obsolete without any messy government intervention, they would argue. They would point out that “impersonal market forces” would eventually bring about an end to the practice by making slavery uncompetitive with “efficient” wage labor. They would argue that increasing machine automation would eventually make slavery uneconomical, because slaves would eventually be replaced with machines like cotton combine harvesters. Or, they might suggest, how about a voluntary slave buyback program? That might move the process along without putting too much hardship on slave owners, or hurting the economy. Steven Pinker would be writing articles and giving TED talks about it.

That would have been the Democratic Party’s approach to slavery.

In a pettifogging sense, they’re not entirely wrong, of course. Wage labor was indeed becoming more economically competitive than plantation slavery for most industries back then. It’s a lot easier to just hire people and pay them a wage and fire them when no longer needed than having to take care of people from cradle to grave. And machines did effectively put an end to the labor-intensive nature of cotton farming, but not until after World War Two (where it effectively put an end to sharecropping as opposed to chattel slavery). Ending slavery did indeed cause economic dislocation, including hardship for ex-slaves, who were not compensated for their previous labor (the forty acres and a mule that they expected).

But by using this example, we can illustrate the moral bankruptcy of neoliberalism. We didn’t let “impersonal market forces” work their magic to put an end to slavery. We fucking banned slavery! And then we fought a war over it. Why? Because it’s wrong. Full stop. It’s an economic practice that is morally wrong, regardless of its economic “effectiveness” or lack thereof. And, besides, if we hadn’t banned it, it’s not like the market would have just removed 100 percent of it of its own accord. Slavery is still a tragic feature of modern life, especially in domestic labor, agriculture, and sex work situations (there are more slaves today than anytime in history worldwide). But by making it illegal, however, we at least have the legal tools at our disposal to stamp it out wherever it rears its ugly head—tools we wouldn’t have had we not “interfered” and just let the market take its natural course.

So this might illustrate the differences between the neoliberal world view and those of us who find this world view abhorrent. I still occasionally see opinions like “neoliberalism doesn’t exist” and “there are no neoliberals.” Bullshit.

And we can see this mentality at work in the way that supposedly “leftist” parties approach many issues today, especially in the United States. For example, let’s not guarantee healthcare to every citizen. Instead, just let the market do its thing, and maybe pass a few regulations to curb the worst excesses (i.e. the ACA approach). Don’t ban fossil fuels, just wait until renewable energy becomes “competitive” with fossil fuels and the market will naturally phase them out via the invisible hand. Maybe pass a subsidy here and there to help move this process along—wouldn’t want to inconvenience polluters now, would we? And the continued celebration of exploitative third-world sweatshops is one of the ugliest manifestation of this mentality.


Matt Taibbi has written the ultimate description of Donald Trump’s world view:

The question, “What is Trump thinking?” is the wrong one. He’s not thinking, he’s selling. What’s he selling? Whatever pops into his head. The beauty of politics from his point of view, compared to every other damn thing he’s sold in his life — steaks, ties, pillows, college degrees, chandeliers, hotels, condominiums, wine, eyeglasses, deodorant, perfume (SUCCESS by Trump!), mattresses, etc. — is that there’s no product. The pitch is the product, and you can give different pitches to different people and they all buy.

In 2016 Trump reeled in the nativist loons and rage cases with his opening rants about walls and mass deportations, then slowly clawed his numbers up with the rest of the party with his “softening” routine. Each demographic probably came away convinced he was lying to the other, while the truth was probably more that he was lying to all of them. Obviously there are real-world consequences to courting the lowest common denominator instincts in people, but to Trump speeches aren’t moral acts in themselves, they’re just “words that he is saying,” as long-ago spokesperson Katrina Pierson put it.

In this sense the Republican Party’s 2020 platform is genius: there isn’t one, just a commitment to “enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda,” meaning whatever Trump says at any given moment. If one can pull back enough from the fact that this impacts our actual lives, it’s hard not to admire the breathtaking amorality of this, as one might admire a simple malevolent organism like a virus or liver fluke…

The Trump Era Sucks and Needs to Be Over

Reading this, I’m reminded of Morris Berman’s take in Why America Failed. The United States, Berman argued, is a nation of hustlers permanently on the make. It’s a “fragment culture,” one that preserves only one aspect of its founding culture (in this case, England), while discarding all of the other aspects, becoming one-dimensional—in this case England’s money-grubbing hustling culture. England’s hustling culture crossed the Atlantic, while all of its other many cultural features—from intellectualism to noblesse oblige to fellowship—which would temper the hustling life were left behind. Furthermore, he argues, this was baked into the culture of what would become the United States from the time the very first Europeans set foot on the continent. Even Alexis de Tocqueville noted America’s obsession with making money and getting rich as far back as the early 1800s. He remarked even back then that it was the most toxic aspect of the budding New World culture he saw developing here (coming from an aristocratic family before the Revolution; he was raised with a very different set of values).

So it’s logical that such a monstrous, one-dimensional culture would elect such a monstrous one-dimensional person to lead it. Trump is the ultimate validation of Berman’s thesis, in my opinion.

An example that comes to mind is Napoleon Hill. Hill wrote books about how to become rich and be successful (“Think and Grow Rich” is his most famous). But he did more than that. He claimed that these were almost spiritual practices, and claimed that they were passed down to him directly through Andrew Carnegie, who specifically chose him to dispense this gospel to the masses. Later, he claimed to have been consulted by President Woodrow Wilson to help with help convince Americans to enter World War One.

Of course it was all 100 percent false. He never met Andrew Carnegie. He was never consulted by any politician, much less the President. He simply made it all up. And that’s the same set of ethics Trump brings to the job.

When Trump first hit the campaign trail in 2015-2016, reporters were staggered by the outrageous promises Trump would toss out, like that he’d slap a 45% tariff on all Chinese products, build a “high” wall across the Mexican isthmus, or deport all 11.3 million undocumented immigrants (“They have to go,” he told Chuck Todd).

Those of us with liberal arts educations and professional-class jobs often have trouble processing this sort of thing. If you work in a hospital and someone asks you a patient’s hematocrit level, no one expects you to open with fifteen times the real number. But this is a huge part of Trump’s M.O.

By the end of the 2016 race, some of us in media were struggling with what to tell readers about Trump’s intentions, given that he would frequently offer contradictory proposals (with matching impassioned explanations) within minutes of each other, sometimes even within the same sentence. He would tell one crowd to whoops and hollers that he couldn’t wait to throw all them illegals back over the river, then go on Hannity that same night and say he was open to a “softening” on immigration:

“Everybody agrees we get the bad ones out… But when I meet thousands and thousands of people on this subject…they’ve said, ‘Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person that has been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and the family out, it’s so tough, Mr. Trump.’”

Read what sales books have to say about morality or belief systems and Trump starts to make even more sense. What did Cialdini notice about John Lennon’s idealistic clarion call, Imagine? That Lennon increased his chances of selling political change with the line, “But I’m not the only one…” It turns out you can increase demand for anything from government policies to items on a Chinese menu simply by asserting, as Trump constantly does, that “everybody’s talking about it.” Ask students to draw long and short lines on a piece of paper, and when asked, the people drawing long ones think the Mississippi River is longer. Trump’s constant invocations about a future of “so much winning” worked, even with people who tried consciously to dismiss it as bullshit.

There used to be distinction between business and politics, even if was more in theory than in actual practice. Politicians, especially ones who led an entire country, were expected to be “statesmen.” They were expected to be exemplars and representative of their country’s citizens and to act a certain way—according to protocol. Salesman, by contrast, were expected to lie and cheat to make the sale. And Americans were okay with this because, deep down, they’re all hustlers at heart.

So if you’re a CEO running a business, not a statesman, of course you tell everyone what they want to hear. Of course you just say whatever will raise the stock price, no matter how ridiculous it is (just ask Elon Musk). Of course you punish your enemies and reward your friends. After all, in private businesses, anything goes. You give the prime positions to family members and other people you know personally. Hard work is for suckers and doesn’t get you anywhere, unless you golf with the boss on weekends.

And so, people who have this same kind of mentality—the people who golf with the boss and get promoted to professional lunch eaters lording over the suckers who sustain the business while making ten times their salary—love this kind of politician. The hustlers. They eat it up. They are the Republicans’ core constituency. They, and the people who really believe that they’re just waiting for “their ship to come in.” The people who really, truly believe in “The American Dream.” The suckers.

They selected for suckers when they pushed trickle down economics. They selected for suckers when they claimed global warming was a multi-decade global hoax by climate scientists designed to get more grant funding. They selected for suckers when they courted the rabid zealots of the religious right—the same demographic targeted by televangelists who use pretty much the exact same techniques on their “flock”

The ads on right-wing media tell you everything you need to know without even knowing the content of the actual broadcasts. Get-rich quick schemes. “Secret” Investment oppotunities. Dick pills made from secret Oriental herbs. Cures for baldness Things “they” don’t want you to know. All targeted to the American “get rich quick” hustling mentality.

The Republican Party has been selecting for hustlers and suckers for decades. They are symbiotic; one feeds on the other. The gullible. The angry. The deluded. The pompous and self-important. There are no longer any ideals for being a Republican or a conservative, it is simply an identity politics based around personalty traits rather than race or actual socioeconomic status (although, race, too, LoL).

The apogee came with the neoliberal idea that government should be run “like a business.” Furthermore, under neoliberalism, government is expected to “make a profit,” just like a business. In practice this meant balanced budgets and austerity if the the government was spending “too much money” on its citizens. And the leader was seen as just another CEO focused on “efficiency” and making a profit, whatever the social cost.

These ideas are, of course, absurd. The whole point of government is that it’s not a business. It sits outside the market and establishes the playing field for business operating in the market. Its purpose is to serve the citizens, not to make a profit. Yet millions bought into these horrible ideas, and continue to believe in them today.

Again, this is an outgrowth of the American hustling mindset: business over everything. Trump is simply a manifestation of these ideals held dear by so many Americans.

Just like people, nations have a character. You can predict the course of person’s life by their character. So it stands to reason that you can predict the course of a nation by its character. And just like we all know people whose characters condemn them to dysfunctional behavior and self-sabotage, so too does the fundamental character of the United States condemn it to its fate, which we are witnessing unfold before our eyes. Trump is not an aberration. Trump is the inevitable manifestation of America’s bankrupt and morally empty hustling soul, something set in motion from the very founding of the country.

Neoliberalism justified and promoted the introduction of purely economic and hierarchical principles in the political life. While it maintained the pretence of equality (one-person one-vote), it eroded it through the ability of the rich to select, fund, and make elect the politicians friendly to their interests. The number of books and articles which document the increasing political power of the rich is enormous: there is hardly any doubt that this was happening in the United States and many other countries around the world over the past 40 years.

The introduction of the rules of behaviour taken from the corporate sector into politics means that politicians no longer see people whom they rule as co-citizens but as employees. Employees can be hired and fired, humiliated and dismissed, ripped off, cheated or ignored.

Until Trump came to power the invasion of the political space by economic rules of behaviour was concealed. There was a pretence that politicians treated people as citizens. The bubble was burst by Trump who, unschooled in the subtleties of democratic dialectics, could not see how anything could be wrong with the application of business rules to politics. Coming from the private sector, and from its most piracy-oriented segment dealing with the real estate, gambling and Miss Universe, he rightly thought—supported by the neoliberal ideology—that the political space is merely an extension of economics.

Many accuse Trump of ignorance. But this is I think a wrong way to look at things. He may not be interested in the US constitution and complex rules that regulate politics in a democratic society because he, whether consciously or intuitively, thinks that they should not matter or even exist. The rules with which he is familiar are the rules of companies: “You are fired!”: a purely hierarchical decision, based on power consecrated by wealth, and unchecked by any other consideration.

Trump as the Ultimate Triumph of Neoliberalism (Branko Milanović)


Odd Lots continues to have some good podcasts. They had one with Pavlina Tcherneva a few months ago. I thought this quote was particularly interesting:

[28:19] “Guarantees are everywhere. The government puts in place all sorts of guarantees. Think of deposit insurance. That’s a government guarantee, right? Think of interest on short-term securities. That’s a government guarantee—in fact, it an unemployment program for bonds. We buy and sell bonds on demand to hit that price. So we do this for bonds. Think of the gold standard. That’s a guarantee. That’s a guarantee for the price of gold. It’s a price on the currency in the form of gold, but if you look at it the other way around, we buy and sell to hit the right price. It’s a full employment program for gold. We have buffer stocks—we’ve got all sorts of guarantees for commodities. We have loan guarantees. In Covid, the loan guarantees are the lifeline for all of these businesses. If they can get the loan they can be assured that the government will wipe it off if they preserve payroll. So guarantees are everywhere! It’s just we don’t have guarantees for employment, and employment basically functions in this same way—to provide a basic floor, a basic price in the labor market.”

How The Government Can Guarantee Jobs For All (Odd Losts Podcast)

It goes into another point I keep trying to make: government is always there on the spot to help out the capitalists. At the same time, it tells workers that they “deserve” nothing except what they can claw free from the impersonal market. As I noted, the parts of government that serve the rich continue to work well, while the parts that help the average citizen are disparaged, defunded, and stripped bare. The governor of Florida recently admitted that the unemployment system was deliberately designed to not pay out benefits. But I’m sure Florida businesses can always expect generous loans and subsidies to help them out with just a phone call. “Interference” in the market is always defined as that which helps workers, but not which helps out rich capitalists. Remember that the next time someone tries to sneeringly disparage the government’s promises to its own citizens as “entitlements.” Who is really “entitled” in this system?

What If a Collapse Happened and Nobody Noticed?

Note: the following is a lightly edited version of a letter that I sent to KMO of the C-Realm podcast:

If what we’re seeing around us right now—especially here in the United States—isn’t a collapse, then what is? To be perfectly honest, 2020 is turning out to be far worse than I ever imagined things would get in my lifetime. There once was a  time when you actually had to try and convince people that a collapse was coming. Now all you have to do is gesture broadly.

It’s true that predictions of a dearth of fossil fuels grinding industrial civilization to a sudden halt and plunging us all into a pre-industrial “world made by hand” didn’t pan out, and isn’t likely to. Instead, a global pandemic has been the catalyst that exposed the cracks in American society that have long been papered over. It’s like when a bridge whose maintenance has been deferred for decades finally gives way when that overloaded semi truck drives over it one morning. That semi truck is called Covid-19.

There is a difference between collapse and catastrophe, with collapse being a long, slow process unfolding over long periods of time, and a catastrophe being a sudden, unexpected event that sends shockwaves through the system. The effect of those shockwaves, of course, is determined by how resilient and durable the underlying system is. In America, I’d say that the system is long past it’s sell-by date.

The laundry list should be familiar by now to everyone who’s been paying attention: French Revolution levels of inequality; shrinking life expectancies; deaths of despair; epidemic obesity and other chronic health conditions; food deserts; automobile dependency; suburban sprawl; rising levels of depression and anxiety; drug abuse; bankrupt municipalities; crumbling infrastructure; deferred maintenance; fragile supply chains; corporate consolidation; business monopolies; stock bubbles; de-unionization; an insular, out-of-touch political class; political corruption; legalized bribery disguised as political donations; voter suppression; boarded up main streets; shuttered factories; empty storefronts; ghost malls; privatization; unaffordable higher education costs; college debt; expensive child care; failing urban schools; education quality based on ZIP code; skyrocketing housing and health care costs; financialization and asset stripping; outsourcing and automation; people lacking health insurance; hospitals closing in rural areas; underfunded pensions; unsustainable private debt levels; worker disengagement; a bloated and overextended military; endless unwinnable foreign wars; veteran suicides; police brutality; street gangs; homelessness; tent cities on the streets; gun violence; school shootings; people living in their cars; hurricanes, floods and wildfires; mass incarceration; a generation of stagnant working-class wages—the list is so long and extensive that a list of functioning institutions in the United States would be shorter and easier to compile at this point.

This week, just a few miles to the south of where I write these words, an entire downtown has been engulfed in violence and rioting, with buildings burned down and stores looted. Mass protests over the summary execution of a black man by police officers brought out armed militias and vigilantes—many from neighboring states—who openly coordinated their activities with the police.

Reactionary political forces are currently circling the wagons to defend a 17-year- old rifle-toting Trump supporter who came in from out of state and is accused of shooting three people, killing two of them. “If the police can’t protect us from violence, then anything goes,” is their assertion, one embraced by increasing numbers of fearful citizens. At the same time, right-wing paramilitaries clash with protesters in the streets of Portland every night like something directly out of Weimar Germany [Note: since I wrote this, one person has been killed during a pro-Trump rally in Portland. Trump himself will be in Kenosha this upcoming Tuesday].

It’s clear from events over the past few months that there has already been significant radicalization of large segments the American population outside of urban areas, the full extent of which has been ignored by the media and politicians, and that this radicalization has penetrated not only the formal branches of the military, but also the internal police forces which are increasingly resembling an occupying army. There are also an increasing number of right-wing militias and paramilitary groups, many of them hotbeds of extremist sentiment and white supremacist ideology. Both they and their ideological opponents see no peaceful means of resolving their differences, and can only recommend their online followers to stockpile ever-larger caches of guns and ammunition in a literal arms race. After each new event, gun store sales break new records. Just this morning I read the following comment from a user on the financial blog Naked Capitalism:

Long time lurker but feel compelled to comment as things are so bad.

America is so screwed. I have been following [Naked Capitalism] since the Great Recession. The trend is ever downward. When people start talking about the need for a new sixties-style protest movement I have to laugh. How deluded. The police are handing out bottled water to armed right-wing vigilantes and militias. Almost functional fascism. To watch the world hyper-power disintegrating in real time is staggering. Wake up, people. Help is NOT coming. Look back on this day in a month, a year, a decade. Guaranteed it will get worse.

People are getting so crazy. Even regular commentators on this site are saying crazy stuff like “kill them all”, referring to Antifa and BLM. WTF!?

Good luck and take care everyone.

I ask you, how can anyone not see this as a collapse? How can any country function under these conditions?

Okay, you might say, but there have been riots in America before, from Watts to Rodney King. It’s just part of the background noise of American life, you could say. But did these riots unfold alongside the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression, and the greatest single-quarter drop in GDP ever recorded? No they did not.

America’s response to the global Coronavirus pandemic has caused the rest of the world to stare agape in horror as if watching a slow-motion car-crash. Not only was the response of the so-called “leader of the free world” to Covid-19 not among the world’s most competent, it has been the absolute worst among developed nations, put to shame by countries with a fraction of its GDP. Meanwhile, the world has been treated to the spectacle of Americans angrily marching in the streets and flying into outrage over the simple requirement of wearing a mask, along with a president who denied and then downplayed the very existence of the virus, later promoting untested and unproven cures from behind the podium. Unlike the rest of the world, the virus became a political hot potato in the United States.

The United States was unable to effectively contain the virus, or implement adequate testing and tracking protocols due to four decades of defunding the state in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy and private businesses. Even the slightest directives to help contain the virus were considered an affront to “freedom.” Many countries ran circles around the United States’ pandemic response, including America’s past enemies like Germany and Vietnam, both densely-populated nations of roughly 83 and 96 million people, respectively. Another commenter to Naked Capitalism wrote concerning the U.S.’s Covid-19 response:

The huge problem facing both the UK and US I think is that they’ve floated for decades on the benefits of having excellent administrative structures, while allowing these structures to decay and rot. When you look at how, say, late 19th Century cities solved the problems of disease through massive water and waste investments, or waged total war when needed, or built huge highway systems over a matter of a few years, and then compare it to the chaos of today – as you say, it can only make you weep. Fixing it would take a massive effort, and to be honest, I don’t see anyone willing to take on that task.

Despite the greatest economic cataclysm of the post-Depression era, America’s politicians went on summer holiday and forestalled any efforts to help individual American workers and small businesses, even while doling out trillions of dollars to well-connected large corporations and the investor class. At the same time, an extra six hundred extra dollars a month was deemed far too generous to the unemployed, encouraging laziness and sloth. As a NYMag headline put it, “GOP Hopes to Revive Economy by Making Life Harder for Unemployed.” One prominent Texas Republican even insisted that the economy must reopen immediately because “there were more important things than living,” and that he was more than willing to sacrifice his life for the cause.

America’s outrageously expensive colleges and universities remain shuttered after an abortive attempt at reopening, teetering on the edge of financial ruin, just like its similarly extravagantly wasteful for-profit private healthcare system, which leaves millions without coverage even in the midst of a pandemic. One million new unemployment claims were filed just last week, and an eviction crisis is looming on the horizon, with politicians sitting on their hands afraid to “spend too much.” When asked about the revenue shortfalls of cities and states due to the pandemic, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, callously suggested that they simply declare bankruptcy. Even Marie Antoinette at least offered cake.

Also as I write this, an area larger than some small European countries is burning in California. The fires are raging out of control because the prison labor that is normally used to fight the fires is too sick with Covid-19. Ponder that for a minute. Simultaneously, on the other end of the country, Hurricane Laura is slamming into Louisiana, unleashing devastation across the region. Before it was downgraded to a tropical storm, the Gulf of Mexico was anticipated to get slammed with two simultaneous hurricanes back-to-back, something that has literally never happened before. As one meteorologist remarked, “In modern meteorological history … there’s never been anything like this before where you could have possibly two hurricanes hitting within miles of each other over a 48 hour period.”

Okay, but we’ve had natural disasters before, right? Sure, but it’s abundantly clear that they’re coming faster and harder than ever now, exactly in line with the most dire predictions of anthropogenic climate change—a problem that, let’s face it, we are not going to deal with in any significant way. That ship has sailed. The worst-case scenarios of climate change are going to happen at this point. Anyone who doesn’t believe that is living in a fantasy world, in my opinion.

Then we have what has been described as a small business “apocalypse” going on right now across the country. Amazon is finally close to accomplishing its long-term goal of consolidating all online commerce under its umbrella, with only a few other behemoths providing any sort of token competition. The consolidation of all commercial activity in the hands of just a few giant global conglomerates—a trend long noted by observers—has for the most part been accomplished thanks to Covid-19. Inequality is now surpassing Gilded-age levels. I just heard that protesters are constructing a guillotine outside of one of Jeff Bezos’s many mansions. America’s billionaires saw their fortunes soar by $434 billion during the pandemic. As Mark Blyth likes to remark, “The Hamptons are not a defensible position.” No wonder they’re so afraid of protesters.

How can one look around and not see that the country is falling apart in front of our very eyes?

And then there’s Trump. It’s difficult to discuss the administration objectively due to the extreme polarization of American society (itself a cause and symptom of collapse), but I think it’s fair to say that the political norms that have kept America relatively stable throughout all of the above challenges are being dismantled by the day. Rather than calling for unity, the current President deliberately stokes fear and division and fans the flames of extremism in a cynical attempt to retain power. When has a sitting president taken every opportunity to openly cast doubt on the validity of an upcoming presidential election? When has a sitting president contemplated suspending the election outright, even as his cronies dismantle the United States Postal Service—an institution that has literally existed since the Republic was founded? At this point, no one thinks the transfer of power will go smoothly—the only question is how bad it will get.

Think about that: the world’s oldest democracy can’t even hold functional elections for political office anymore. And that’s before we get to the many, many blatant examples of voter disenfranchisement. For example, this spring I myself was unable to vote because the polling stations in my city went from 180 to just four overnight, and attempts to delay the election were deliberately thwarted by the state Republican party using the court system-the same court system they are now using to overturn mask requirements. Thanks to gerrymandering, the Republican Party has an ironclad grip on power in my state, and are using it to strip authority from the recently elected Democratic governor, all of it with the tacit approval of much of the electorate. As Nathan Robinson noted in the Guardian, “A failed state is one that can no longer claim legitimacy or perform a government’s core function of protecting the people’s basic security. Lately, the Wisconsin supreme court seems to be doing its level best to make its state qualify for “failed” status. Multiple decisions have both undermined the government’s legitimacy and endangered the people.”

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the Trump phenomenon is the extent to which his cult-like followers appear to be living in a totally alternative reality, curated by algorithm—one in which the U.S. response to Covid is the best in the world (or else Covid is no big deal), the economy is booming, the police are never wrong, the news is fake, voting fraud is endemic, climate change is a Chinese hoax, homicidal black hordes are pouring out of inner cities, Democratic-run cities and states are all economic basket cases, the U.S healthcare system is the best in the world, Democrats want to confiscate all the firearms in the country, and the biggest threats to Americans are socialism and cancel culture. And these opinions are as impervious to facts as Captain America’s shield is to bullets. How can representative democracy function when there’s no longer even a shared common basis in reality?

Then we have the QAnon supporters, a bizarre and growing conspiracy movement that is truly living in a separate reality—one where only Trump can save us from the Satan-worshiping pedophiles of the esoteric “Deep State.” Energy shortages aside, James Howard Kunstler hit the nail on the head when he noted that “sometimes countries just go crazy.” It seems like an apt description of what’s going on right now. To steal yet another phrase from Kunstler, even if Biden wins the election and by some miracle there is a peaceful transfer of power, the “Yeast People” will still be there and will inevitably rise again.

So, to recap, we are unable to hold free and fair elections and heavily-armed right-wing paramilitaries openly patrol the streets of American cities and occupy statehouses with tacit approval from the authorities. Large parts of the country are under de-facto one-party rule. The police shoot people with impunity. Cities and states across the country are on the verge of bankruptcy, with the Federal government held hostage by a radical conservative movement. Millions are unemployed. This is already below failed-state status. Why aren’t more people pointing this out? Why aren’t people shouting it from the rooftops? The first post I wrote that went viral way back in 2012 was called What If a Collapse Happened and Nobody Noticed?, referring mainly to austerity measures in Europe at the time. Now, here in 2020, I can’t help but ask that exact same question again with even more urgency (hence, I reused the exact same title). How are you people not seeing this? How is any of this this okay? Am I taking crazy pills, or what?

It’s as if the 1918 flu pandemic, the Red Scare, the Great Depression, the Long Hot Summer of 1967, Kent State, the Ludlow massacre, the disputed 2000 election, and Hurricane Katrina all took place within the same twelve month period. At least the massive clouds of locusts are still confined to Africa (for now!).

Had I described all this years ago, you might think that we would all be living in something out of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” And yet it all seems so normal! As I noted, a city a mere 25 miles from where I live was engulfed in riots, yet I only found out about it by going onto the BBC News Website. I still go to work. I still walk to the store for some wine (albeit while wearing a mask). I still buy tacos from taco trucks. It is a beautiful, warm, sunny day today with perfect weather. I still have electricity, running water and internet service in my house. Yet just a short stroll from where I live there is a walking path along a river where a large number of homeless people have set up camp, and every off-ramp now features someone holding up a cardboard sign asking for spare change. Oh, did I forget to mention the coin shortage?

This is what collapse really looks like!

By just about any metric aside from maybe screen size and processor speed, the world since 2008 has gotten progressively worse for the average person all over the world. Even the vaunted Internet—the subject of so many utopian visions from the late 1990’s—has been transformed into either a vehicle for mass surveillance, a vector for the propagation of disinformation and agitprop by hostile state actors, or an echo-chamber contributing to the radicalization of malcontents and a way for them to coordinate their activities. And the march of illiberal nationalist authoritarian governments is not confined to the United States—it’s a worldwide phenomenon including places like Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, Belarus (especially relevant right now) and arguably India, China and Russia. And that’s on top of countries that were never viable democracies in the first place, or are in outright meltdown like Syria and Iraq.

So when I still hear people asking “when will the collapse occur?” I can’t help but wonder what reality they are living in, or what the heck they are expecting. It’s like someone asking “when will the ball game start?” during the sixth inning.

I think it comes from an eschatological background inherited from Christianity, where we are patiently waiting for a single defining “event” which will be some sort of turning point. There has always been a quasi-religious aspect of the collapse and survivalist mentalities which has obscured an accurate appraisal of our situation.

As an aside—in my opinion the notion that I will be okay by disengaging completely from the wider society and somehow living “off the grid” in a country of 328 million people is a dangerous fantasy and yet another manifestation of the toxic American concept of “rugged individualism” which has gotten us to this point in the first place. It won’t work. Any society, no matter how large or small, is an ongoing collective enterprise. We are not Robinson Crusoes all living on our own private island, no matter how many MRE’s and cases of bottled water we stock up on. The very notion is proof positive that people have pretty much abandoned even trying to constructively reform the system at this point. It’s on auto-pilot. We are powerless and we know it. It’s easier just to give up and withdraw. Defeat is better than disappointment. Even the Silicon Valley tech oligarchs are buying doomsteads in New Zealand because, as Slavoj Žižek quipped, “it’s easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.”

Collapse is here, and it’s happening right now. I don’ t think that’s disputable at this point. We’re in for a long, long period of chaos and decline that will probably last the rest of our lives. After that, it’s impossible to tell what will happen. Perhaps the title of one of Buckminster Fuller’s books sums it up: Utopia or Oblivion.


Switching gears to your conversation with First about gender relations.

One topic that didn’t come up was the radicalization of many of these disaffected young men to extreme right-wing politics. One would think that if any demographic group would benefit from reforming the current pseudo-meritocratic “winner take all” economic order, it would be them. One the face of it, these young men should be a natural constituency for ideas like reducing extreme income inequality, taxing away enormous multi-generational fortunes, labor unionization, requiring employers to provide decent wages and benefits, subsidized higher education and training for everyone, and establishing things like MMT’s Jobs Guarantee.

But they’re not doing that. Instead, this demographic appears to be lurching more and more to the extreme Right. They are channeling their lack of advancement into intense hatred for “feminists” and “political correctness,” rather than looking at the underlying economic conditions that are affecting their lives. Indeed, when one thinks of a stereotypical “incel” or NEET one thinks not of the mythical “Bernie Bro”, but rather a troll on 4Chan shitposting memes in order to “own the libs”, or “trigger the snowflakes.” What’s going on here?

It seems that most socially awkward young men—the white ones at least—have been gaslit into supporting a philosophy that is expressly designed to concentrate wealth ever more at the top and leave them with even fewer opportunities and a bleaker future than what they have now. They seem driven by some inexorable force to support the economic libertarianism that has destroyed their future. Why is this? Why are they fighting so virulently to defend an economic system that has basically destroyed their lives? Why are they fighting against higher taxes on the wealthy and for stripping away the moribund remains of the welfare state? It’s just so bizarre. It’s as if the Jews were the Nazis’ most fervent supporters.

To give a partial answer to my own question, I think one reason is simply that, unlike the Left, the Right has actively courted this demographic. There is a quote by Steve Bannon to the effect that gamers were his ideal candidates for radicalization. It does appear that there is an active online recruitment effort targeted to computer gamers, many of whom are the young men who have difficulty finding girlfriends or establishing careers. As Vox put it in a 2019 article, “A rot has quietly spread among video gamers — a reactionary political culture from which outright white supremacist groups have begun recruiting America’s men and boys.” This, of course, does not mean that anyone who enjoys computer games is a budding fascist, if that needs to be said.

The popularity of Jordan Peterson provides another example. It’s obvious that Jordan Peterson’s message is deliberately tailored primarily to struggling young men and boys (although admittedly is not confined to this demographic). Peterson’s philosophy centers on reclaiming “traditional masculine values” and peddles an idiosyncratic metaphysics as the antidote to the “chaos” unleashed by a creeping “Cultural Marxism” emanating mainly from college campuses where gays, transsexuals, feminists and other assorted “radical leftists” reign supreme. Economically, Peterson promotes a form of libertarianism to his fans (or “Classical English Liberalism” as it has been rebranded) while defending the status quo and deliberately conflating social democratic movements and Soviet-style Communism.

At the same time, hysterical attempts to depict Peterson as a misogynist, or even a fascist, reflect a deep hostility among some of the more extreme parts of the Left to even speaking to this demographic. There is small, but vocal part of the Left today which depicts anything remotely related to white males as evil and depicts them as the fountainhead of everything that is wrong with society. This is obviously counterproductive. It’s clear that such rhetoric is driving many men into the willing arms of the reactionary Right, but some parts of the Left don’t seem to care—in fact they even seem to welcome it! Now, I think the number of Leftists who think this way is very small and has been deliberately exaggerated as a rhetorical weapon. But it surely does exist.

Another reason might be that these young men have been conditioned to see the welfare state as the root cause of their lack of success with the opposite sex. One frequently hears grumbling from certain quarters online about how women can supposedly have as many children as they want without men because “the state is their daddy.” This assumes that stripping back the current social democratic welfare state (such as it still exists) will somehow rewind the clock back to a patriarchal system where women are once again dependent upon males for economic survival. Yet the majority of college graduates are now women, and they are seen as more desirable employees by today’s corporate culture, for better or worse. These reactionaries are cutting off their nose to spite their face. Women aren’t going to go back to being economically subservient without some sort of repressive government straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale, which I certainly don’t want. Blessed be the fruit…

Another factor is that the mainstream Left in America is increasingly pitching itself to the “winners” of this system—the so-called Professional Managerial Class. As Hilary Clinton mused, she won among the “economically dynamic” regions of the county—the places that were, in her words, “optimistic, diverse, dynamic and moving forward.” Thomas Piketty calls this the “Brahmin Left,” an apt description. If you don’t happen to live in one of those “optimistic, diverse and dynamic” areas–and have no chance of ever living in them due to unaffordable housing and education costs which have effectively constructed an invisible moat around them–why, then, would you feel any sort of affinity for the Left’s current platform and policy goals? You may not get a raise, but at least you’re not walking on eggshells when you tell a coarse joke among your Right-wing buddies.

The vision of uniting the working classes of all demographics and geographic locations into a coherent pro-worker movement that affects real change is forever sabotaged by this cultural condescension. It’s frustrating to those of us who want this vision to succeed. It’s the vision that was promoted by Bernie Sanders, and articulated by shows like Rising. There is no one who is even attempting to speak to the life experiences of those whom Chris Arnade poignantly referred to as “the people in the back row,” also known as the Unnecessariat. And so, without even the hope of a better future, increasing radicalization is unfortunately the probable trajectory for such people. We see it happening already. It shouldn’t have to be this way, but that’s the way it is. Hillary Clinton may not have called all Trump supporters “deplorables” but the enthusiasm with which they embraced that label to refer to themselves is one of the most telling things from that election, I think.

It’s disheartening to see so many young men embrace the toxic politics of the extreme reactionary Right who see those of us fighting for better economic conditions for all of us as their mortal enemies—in some cases, enemies to be slaughtered. And, indeed, many factions of the Left seem to relish seeing them as enemies as well, when they should be natural allies. The Rights tends to seek out allies while the Left looks for heretics. I don’t, of course, but I don’t know how we stop this. I guess discussions like this are a start.

What brought this vividly to mind is the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year old vigilante who shot and killed several people during the riots in Kenosha this past week. From the reports, he seems to have been obsessed with guns, police, the “Blue Lives Matter” movement, and was an enthusiastic Trump supporter, even attending his rallies. He seems typical of a lot of these young men. He lived in one of the anonymous down-at-heel areas of the northern Illinois flatland, and was raised by a single mother who appears to have given him the gun and driven him to the protests (!!) So, a lack of a father figure, and yes, he probably didn’t have a girlfriend, either.

From my observations, it seems like some form of guard labor is the only option for downwardly mobile whites looking for a decent life nowadays. What does that say about our current economic conditions? It’s especially popular among rural whites who tend to be rabid gun enthusiasts. This isn’t given enough attention. I work with a number of non-college educated blue collar folks, and all of their male sons are in the military, while all of their wives and daughters are nurses, or work somewhere in the healthcare industry. They are mostly Trump supporters, although not enthusiastically. When I was young, you might see a security guard only at a bank, if there. Now they are everywhere. Obviously, the more unequal a society is, the more guard labor you need to protect the property of the winners from the burgeoning mass of losers. In this scenario, being a cop means you’re not a loser.

I wonder if this Tweet contains a hint of truth:

These ideas [Fascism, authoritarianism] are also aligned with some aspects of the psychology of power, and how people react when they perceive themselves to lack power–people often compensate by latching to ideologies which help them retain a sense of power or explain their feelings of lost power/control.

I’m going go ahead and guess that having the power trip of a gun and a badge beats wearing an orange smock and cleaning up aisle seven, which is probably the only other option for a boy like Kyle, just like it’s more exciting and lucrative to inner-city black youth to sell drugs than flipping burgers and manning the deep fryer. But what does it say that these are the best options on the table for so many young men in our country today? What it says to me is that much of America is quietly becoming an open air prison with two classes of people–guards and laborers. That’s a damning indictment of America under late stage capitalism, of course, but it won’t show up in the traditional economic metrics. After all, Dachau had zero percent unemployment and reasonably high productivity. Work makes us free…

The profiles of his victims are interesting as well. Their profiles are a bit different: they’re a tad older—in their 20’s and 30’s, but still quite young—and both of them apparently did have girlfriends. One had a daughter, and another a stepdaughter, but interestingly neither appears to have been married. However, none of the reports I’ve read about them so far mentioned them in connection with any sort of job or profession—the only “career” mentioned for either one of them was “skateboarder.” Also troubling, but in a different way. So radicalization might be caused by the same underlying economic conditions, but manifesting itself in profoundly different ways.

So that’s the reality in America today for young men. The skateboarding enthusiast becomes a Black Lives Matter protester, while the gun enthusiast becomes a cop firing tear gas at the Black Lives Matter protester, all while the billionaires grow richer by the day. In the past, small-town guys like Anthony and Kyle might have worked alongside one another for the same company, sent their kids to the same middle school, attended the same church and played on the same softball team. Now, instead, they’re rootless and confused young men sitting on opposite sides of America’s increasingly divided society, tragic victims of a country increasingly unraveling at the seams and inevitably spiraling towards civil war. How do we stop this? I wish I knew the answer.

P.S., I notice that another former “doomer” has acknowledged this as well. Ran Prier writes: “…I expect the collapse, which is now fully underway, to be highly local: how bad it is, or how good it is, depends on what city or town you’re living in, and how mentally healthy the people are there. The worst places will be ruled by violent warlords, and the best places will be the seeds for a better future.”

I Was Right

I don’t often like to toot my own here on this blog. But while observing what’s going on around me, I can’t help but note that so many trends I saw playing out in the early part of the decade of the 2010’s are coming to fruition. A lot of the things I was talking about several years ago have suddenly been discovered by a wide array of pundits, with many of them writing entire books on these subjects.

I don’t often go back and read what I wrote in the past. but looking at a lot of the news and commentary today in 2020, I get a weird sense of déjà vu.

For years, I’ve said that the Republican Party is no longer a political party. Rather it is an authoritarian movement. Here’s me all the way back in 2013(!):

The short version is this: Wealthy elites, alarmed at the flattening of incomes that had happened between World War 2 and the 1970’s decided to wage an all-out campaign to undo those policies (unions, a social safety net, good public services, progressive taxation, environmental regulations, etc). To do so, they allied with all of the most venal, extremist, paranoid, reactionary and authoritarian elements in American society that had always been lurking under the surface but had been marginalized and kept under control by the “adults”: John Birchers, Evangelical fundamentalists, Christian Reconstructionists, Southern racists, white supremacists, Dixiecrats, Posse Comitatus, “Big Mule” politicians, corrupt politicos, “sovereign citizens,” “Patriot” militia brigades, libertarian Robber Barons (Koch Brothers, et. al.), Wall Street swindlers and takeover artists, Randroids, social Darwinists, and so forth, and used these elements to take over one of America’s two major political parties in the name of eliminating their taxes, curtailing regulations, and busting unions. Now, having united all of the worst elements in American society under one banner for the first time (for they seem to have little else in common), organizing it, shaping it, and giving it a powerful vehicle (the reactionary authoritarian movement that calls itself the Republican Party), the business class can no longer control it, and like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, can only watch helplessly as the forces it has unleashed for it’s own short-term benefit, fueled by white rage and decreasing living standards, tear the country apart (the “Corn-pone Nazis”)…

…To this end, they took effective control of one of the United States’ two major political parties and created a coherent worldview centered around what has been called “the paranoid style in American Politics.” for the New Right, the declining fortunes of white America were caused by an activist government determined to levy high taxes on “productive” (mainly white) citizens to give to a lazy and shiftless (mainly black) citizens in order to buy votes. They argued that America was divided into “makers” and “takers” (or ants and grasshoppers) where half of all Americans (the “47 percent”) pay no income taxes and thus are economically unproductive and entirely dependent upon government largesse…

…Now business leaders have effectively lost control over the party they took over, as the elements they unleashed with the objective of lowering their taxes and regulations has become a fanatical, radicalized, reactionary, nativist, conspiratorial, authoritarian political movement, opposed to even the very concept of government or the public trust in the name of “liberty. To them, government is always too large, taxes are always too high, and any sense of common purpose is derided as “socialism.” They see the nineteenth century as a golden age worthy of returning to, and see themselves engaged in a life and death struggle for the “soul” of the nation. They regard anyone else with a different opinion as “traitors” and opponents not to be negotiated with, but as threats to be eliminated. The right has even resorted to physical intimidation and has even formed a modern version of the Freicorps of inter-war Germany.

Politics of the Shutdown (2013)

And here’s what I wrote in 2015:

It’s no surprise populism needs to be the “right-wing” variety in a country like the U.S. As I’ve said before, the Republican party is no longer a party, it is an authoritarian movement, and authoritarian movements need a leader…

Corn-pone Hitler (2015)

How’s that description panning out? Pretty good, I’d say. I’d say the essay above is still pretty much on point, although immigration was much more of an issue in 2016 than it is today.

In that same essay I wrote that “sometimes countries just go crazy.” Um, is that not the perfect description of what’s going on in America right now? Is there any better way to describe QAnon?And then there are the Anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, Bill Gates microchip conspiracies, people burning down 5G towers, and Kanye perennially running for president. Let’s face it, this is a country in the grip of deep, deep psychosis.

Sometimes countries just go crazy. It’s happened many times before in the past, from the Gin Craze in Britain, to the Terror in France, to the Cultural Revolution in China, to the Rwandan genocide, to the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Syrian Civil War. We Americans just told ourselves, “it can’t happen here,” as we went about our daily business. But, in truth, it was more likely to happen here—in this overlarge, unwieldy mess of a republic that shouldn’t even by rights be a single country—than anywhere else. We’ve just been coasting on luck since the 1860’s. Now that luck has run out. We’re watching a country collapse in real time in front of our eyes.

I’ve also repeatedly said that while the Republicans have become the John Birch Society, the Democrats have become the moderate Republican Party of the 1970s, but that’s actually just a bit off. The Republicans of the 1970s were quite to the Left of today’s Democratic Party establishment. Instead, the most recent convention confirmed that today’s neoliberal Democratic Party is basically the same as the Republican party of the 1990’s:

On Tuesday, Cindy McCain, the widow of Senator John McCain, narrated a video portraying the close and decades-long friendship her husband and Biden shared…General Colin Powell, who was secretary of state in George W. Bush’s administration, went further and explicitly endorsed the former vice president.

On Monday night, former Ohio Governor John Kasich also made the case to independents and those in his party that Biden is a leader who will listen to all perspectives, without regard to partisanship…Former New York Congresswoman Susan Molinari, the keynote speaker at the Republicans’ 1996 convention, also spoke out in support of Biden Monday night. And so did California billionaire Meg Whitman, who made an unsuccessful bid for governor a decade ago.

The DNC on Monday night also featured a video of Republican voters who are disillusioned by Mr. Trump and ready to vote for Biden…

Making room for Republicans at Democratic National Convention (CBS)

The former manager of the Clinton administration’s effort to reinvent government is calling on Congress to break up the U.S. Postal Service into two separate organizations — one public and one private.

Elaine C. Kamarck, who managed the National Performance Review for the Clinton administration, argues that as the business of delivering first-class mail fades away, the Postal Service needs flexibility to compete with private-sector rivals.

Former government reinventor calls for breakup of U.S. Postal Service (Chicago Tribune)

Meeanwhile, AOC got only 60 seconds, with NBC deliberately distorting the content of her micro-speech (which was simply a rote procedural nomination of the second-place finisher Bernie Sanders).

Also in 2015, I pointed out that Wal-mart was a planned economy:

Think about it- from the factory floors where Chinese peasants crank out enough goods for the entire planet, these goods manage to end up on store shelves all over the world just in time and in adequate amounts to satisfy consumer demand with almost surgical precision. They keep track of exactly how many items are on the shelves in every store on earth, and make sure the shelves are never empty, even without items piling up unused in a warehouse. Advanced algorithms keep tabs and make sure that counts never get too low and that there are adequate lead times. Manufacturers are coordinated to make sure that there are not too many or too few goods. Customers’ preferences are tracked in stores and online and data mining means that companies they can anticipate the wants and needs of customers in any given location. They are so good at it that one big-box store knew a woman was pregnant before her own father did.

And these stores contain everything you could possibly want, from durable goods like washing machines and blenders, to medicines, to electronics, to health and beauty products, to clothes. Now they’re even putting groceries under the same roof. Everything you could possibly want or need can be purchased under one giant warehouse roof.

And think of Amazon.com. Imagine a writer in the nineteen fifties penning a story about people ordering any good they could possibly imagine from anywhere in the world off a computer network attached to everyone’s homes, and having those goods delivered in a few days, or even the very next day. They can see images of the goods, and return them if they do not want them.

Computational Conversations (2015)

It seems like the “free” capitalist market is resembling the Soviet equivalent that it supposedly “defeated” more and more these days. [David] Graeber’s examples above consist of Stakhanovite work ethics, wasteful busywork and pointless jobs, and massive amounts of red tape and bureaucracy. But as I’ve also noted previously, the capitalist market is extremely centrally planned and controlled. Recall this study from a few years back that a handful of companies control the world’s money flows: Proof of Global Domination By a Few Corporations (Treehugger) As I like to point out, Wal-Mart is a planned economy. It does what free market fundamentalists claim is “impossible” every single day – coordinate production, distribution and global supply chains of every good under the sun from lawnmowers to barbecues to bananas and heads of lettuce all around the world with little disruption or acute shortages.

Bureaucracy, Capitalism and Freedom (2015)

In 2019, a pair of authors published an entire book arguing the same thing: every single day the existence of firms like Wal-mart and Amazon, which dominate the modern American economy, prove that the supposed “problem” of the so-called “calculation problem” is really no problem at all! It’s called “The People’s Republic of Wal-mart”, published by Verso books.

For the left and the right, major multinational companies are held up as the ultimate expressions of free-market capitalism. Their remarkable success appears to vindicate the old idea that modern society is too complex to be subjected to a plan. And yet, as Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski argue, much of the economy of the West is centrally planned at present. Not only is planning on vast scales possible, we already have it and it works. The real question is whether planning can be democratic. Can it be transformed to work for us?

Now, it’s possible that I may have gotten the idea from somewhere else, as I note in the post. Either it was from the eventual authors of that book, or they and I read the same thing and came to the same conclusions. In that post I also wondered, “Could the big-box stores be an unwitting stepping stone to a socially-based post-scarcity economy?”

I was warning that our social order was starting to resemble feudalism as far back as 2013, even before the current consolidation of wealth and business activity in the hands of a few oligarchs thanks to Covid-19:

Foundations of Neofeudalism (2013)

And More neofeudalism (2013)

I revisited the topic of state disintegration in 2015:

A more plausible cause of collapse is the ability of the rich and powerful to escape taxation while the common person cannot. The burden falls ever more on the average citizen during a time of declining incomes, meaning decreased revenues for the state. The state loses its ability to get things done. Rather than the ever-expanding government of their imagination, contracting government proceeds a collapse, which is hard to square with exponentially expanding tax revenue theory.

The thing that makes civilization work is the ability of a central government to get things done – defend the borders, keep law and order, adjudicate disputes, maintain infrastructure, and so forth. As more of the state’s wealth is siphoned off into private hands, the state’s ability to do all of these things is hampered. That’s what we see in history. It is the private powers who lay around in ostentatious luxury while contributing less and less to the wider society, helped along by the fact that moneyed and ruling classes merge to become one and the same.

As money flows into private hands, they become the de facto government. When that happens, justice is enforced by whim, and the freedom of the average person doesn’t increase, it declines

I’ve written a lot about Neofeudalism—where the resources built by the public commonwealth are seized by a tiny oligarchy who then restrict access to them via tollbooths which they use to siphon the wealth of the wider society into their own pockets while offering nothing in return. The philosophical justification for this is, of course, neoliberalism, aka, free market fundamentalism under the tutelage of economic “science.”

In our previous survey, we saw Michael Hudson describe this as one of the primary recurring patterns throughout history. Certain controls on the accumulation of the wealthy are dismantled. As wealth inequality increases, eventually more and more of the population becomes indebted to a small minority. Those debtors then lose their “stake” in society, often losing their ability to participate as citizens in the process, and the society falls apart. Societies become adversarial instead of cohesive – predator and prey instead of cooperation. This is fatal. Ibn Khaldun pointed out that that well-run, cohesive societies with a sense of common purpose – he used the Arabic word asabiyah, tended to out-compete and supplant adversarial, unequal ones over time. Often these societies were based around smaller, flatter social structures than the top-heavy ones they supplanted. Successor societies then put moderate curbs on wealth accumulation to preserve that cohesion, but those curbs are eventually dismantled. We’ve seen this just in a few hundred years of history of the U.S.

Wealth falls into private hands where it is distributed not by public necessity, but by the whims of the wealthy and powerful. Rather than the superior allocation predicted by Market fundamentalists, it leads to widespread misallocation as the wealthy compete for status. And so we get more and more luxury apartments while infrastructure crumbles, artwork going for hundreds of millions of dollars while public funding for the arts dries up, stadium luxury boxes while schools can’t afford to replace lightbulbs, solid gold trashcans and toilet seats, single record albums selling for two million dollars, and things like that. Meanwhile, streetlights flicker out, bridges collapse, and urban areas become lawless…

High-end Versus Low-end Governing (2015). Since then, we now we have a coin shortage and the Post Office is actively being destroyed as we speak. It now looks as though the State might be so weak in the U.S. at this point that we won’t be able to hold an accurate election for president! Think about how far we have fallen since 1980. This is truly unprecedented. Even outer space exploration has turned over to wealthy oligarchs to fund out of their own pocketbooks. And yet we’re all  supposed to cheer every time SpaceX sends up another private rocketship. Sigh.

The response to Covid-19 has pretty much laid bare the fact the United States has already clearly transitioned into a low-end society. Our current peers are Brazil and Belarus, not Germany, Switzerland or South Korea. Even Vietnam has a more functional government than the United States at this point.

In 2015, I also wrote:

Much of this presages a return to Neofeudalism – instead of broadly distributed ownership, the rich will own all land and housing, and the rest of us will be “serfs” perpetually in debt to them from the day we’re born and paying all of our income for the necessities of life, which the rich will own outright.

Q.E. Worked (2015)

I wrote an extensive summary of neofeudalism back in 2014:

…the Hobby Lobby case is important in a way that is not getting much attention. It is a fundamental redefining of the social contract! It also ties in with the redefinition of the rich as “job creators.” Such terminology would be anathema decades ago. There was not a separate class of “job creators,” rather, anyone could be a job creator if they saw some sort of need in the economy and filled it. Jobs were created by necessity if there was a task that needed doing; they weren’t gifts from above to be showered upon the filthy, unwashed masses. Workers did not see themselves as helpless agents dependent upon these “lords” for their subsistence, but the source of their own wealth. No more. The yeomen have now been reduced to serfs dependent upon the generosity of those above them who own the economy.

It’s frightening the number of ways we seem to be devolving socially, even as our technology becomes more potent. College has become a from of indentured servitude. Debtors’ prisons are making a backdoor comeback. Police are being militarized. The drug war is used as an excuse for asset seizures by the state which are then auctioned off to raise money. Police are getting more violent and thuggish. Excess workers are channeled to prisons where slavery is totally legal under the Thirteenth Amendment. Creationist museums and megachurches populate the forgotten and economically backward interior of the country. Many Detroit residents now no longer have access to water, and have appealed to the U.N. People walk around with guns and pass “open carry” and “castle doctrine” laws (there’s a nice medieval-sounding name). Laws are being passed to restrict voting from certain groups. Even culture is becoming coarser and more vapid. People are behaving in a deranged fashion. What is happening to this country? How can anyone continue to believe in “progress” given what we’re seeing?

The “N” Word (2014)

How are those observations panning out? Pretty well, I’d say.

And now, a number of authors have written books on the subject. Most prominent is “The Coming of Neo-feudalism” by Joel Kotkin, which was published in 2020:

Our society is being rapidly reduced to a feudal state, a process now being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of small businesses are near extinction, millions more losing their jobs and many others stuck into the status of a property-less serfs. The big winners have been the “expert” class of the clerisy and, most of all, the tech oligarchs, who benefit as people rely more on algorithms than human relationships.

Following a remarkable epoch of greater dispersion of wealth and opportunity, we are inexorably returning towards a more feudal era marked by greater concentration of wealth and property, reduced upward mobility, demographic stagnation, and increased dogmatism. If the last seventy years saw a massive expansion of the middle class, not only in America but in much of the developed world, today that class is declining and a new, more hierarchical society is emerging.

The new class structure resembles that of Medieval times. At the apex of the new order are two classes―a reborn clerical elite, the clerisy, which dominates the upper part of the professional ranks, universities, media and culture, and a new aristocracy led by tech oligarchs with unprecedented wealth and growing control of information. These two classes correspond to the old French First and Second Estates.

Below these two classes lies what was once called the Third Estate. This includes the yeomanry, which is made up largely of small businesspeople, minor property owners, skilled workers and private-sector oriented professionals. Ascendant for much of modern history, this class is in decline while those below them, the new Serfs, grow in numbers―a vast, expanding property-less population.

The Coming of Neo-feudalism (Joel Kotkin.com). Pretty much exactly what I was saying back in 2013-2015. Of course, Kotkin has the requisite hopium coda at the end about how we can reverse this process. We won’t, of course.

The book “Winners Take All” by Anand Giridharadas is a book-length critique of philanthrocapitalism. In it, he points out that diverting state tax revenue into the pockets of wealthy oligarchs who then distribute those funds according to their whim is tantamount to returning to pre-Enlightenment feudalism:

[8:27] “We actually have a system in this country for making the world a better place, and its called democracy. The winners of our age don’t like to use that system for their world betterment schemes. You know why? because they only have one vote in that system. That is not enough votes for them.”

“We actually have programs to make sure people are eating. We actually have programs to make sure people go to schools, and that they’re good schools. We actually have programs to represent people’s preferences and translate them into policies that will help people. We have robust mechanisms. They’re not perfect, and they’re in a bad way now…”

[9:20] “One of the things that came out of the Enlightenment was…think back to feudal Europe. You had a bunch of peasants. And then you had a bunch of lords and ladies and landed estates, and these peasants farmed their fields. You had peasants whose lives were vulnerable to the whims of the lords and ladies. If they wanted to take this much wheat that year, that’s how much they would take. If they wanted to let you rent their thing, they would or wouldn’t, and it was a cruel world.”

“And part of what we built from the seventeenth and eighteenth century onward was universal systems through governments and institutions and laws where your life didn’t depend on how much caffeine your lord and lady had that morning, or whether they were happy or not. It depended on a set of universal laws and norms. And so we built things eventually over time like public schools and Medicare and Social Security and the interstate highway system.”

“And so what is happening now in my view is a neofeudalism where the Zuckerbergs and Bezoses of the world are basically becoming the new lords and ladies. Even when they do nice things, they’re deciding what kind of schools we should have. What kind of financial aid programs universities should have. What kind of anti-disease programs we should have.”

“And whats so striking about this is that a lot of these people are our worst economic sinners reinventing themselves as our saviors…”

I also identified secession movements as a growing issue back in 2013: Coming Apart (2013) These trends have only intensified.

I was writing about what I called “The Final Solution for the Working Class Question,” as far back as 2012–a rather grim descriptor of what I thought would be the unofficial policy response to rising automation and the shrinking need for employees in the global economy.

I think the Republicans see what I have seen on this blog – increasing automation and a die-off due to declining resources and deteriorating economic conditions. They want to make sure the “right” people die off, and getting rid of those pesky social programs that were useful to the bottom line in the age of American mass industrialization is the place to start! They were useful once, but now they’re just costing valuable money! After all, there are plenty of Chinese workers to build their stuff, and plenty of Mexicans to clean their houses and cook their food. The rest of us are dead weight. And expensive education as the gateway to the shrinking job base of the future is all a part of the plan. They will make sure that it – along with education and health care, do not get “fixed.” From their standpoint, that’s exactly what their preferred candidates are doing.

When you look at it this way, and only this way, do the action of republican candidates make complete sense. Maybe it’s time we start realizing their game plan. As I’ve said before – it’s the final solution for the working classes. Too bad the American working classes seem determined to help their jailers herd them onto boxcars.

We Don’t Need No Education (2012)

Now with Covid-19, this concept has shifted into overdrive. See these posts from The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein: https://twitter.com/JStein_WaPo/status/1294097153309192193

And I previously noted that we had a presidential candidate this year whose entire campaign platform was based around addressing the elimination of middle-class jobs through automation. Andrew Yang was saying in 2020 what I was saying in 2013:

The Post-Work Society Is Not a Future State. It Is Here. Right Now. (2013) He also wrote a book about it: The War on Normal People (Wikipedia)

So please permit me a small victory lap. If you were reading this blog back in those days, you would have been ahead of the curve on many issues that are front-and-center right now, and would have been clued in to the ongoing trends in our society. Which was, after all, my intent. And if you want to know what the future will look like, I’d say here’s as good a place to look as anywhere else.

Neoliberal Democracy and the Futility of Elections

What I want to explore today is a concept that might explain voter apathy, the rise of the “values voters”, as well as the ongoing “culture war” nonsense.

The core idea is that under Neoliberalism, the market is protected from democracy. This theme was explored in this podcast with Mark Blyth and Jonathan Hopkin that I listened to a few months ago.

Rhodes Center Podcast: Populism, or ‘Anti-System Politics’? (Watson Institute)

Hopkin’s idea is that the rise of what he calls “anti-system politics” comes from the fact that the economic sphere is consigning more and more people to poverty and precariousness, yet politicians do nothing about it. This goes on for election cycle after election cycle. People vote one party into power, then another, and yet nothing ever changes! Why is that? Hopkin says it is because all ruling centrist parties across the wealthy democracies have effectively signed onto the same basic economic philosophy:

[11:00] Jonathan Hopkin: “The story isn’t just an economic one; it’s also about how democratic institutions have failed to deal with the economic problem. And a big part of that story is why competitive elections have not been enough to give people channels to address their grievances and elect people who will do something to help them.”

“A big part of the story there is that if all the political parties are signed up to a particular way of doing things—lets just for shorthand call it neoliberal economics—then voters can vote, but it won’t make any difference. There might be marginal differences—some of them quite important—between political parties, but the underlying system of management of the economy is not going to change if all the parties are signed up to the same model. And that same model has been entrenched across all of the Western democracies.”

“I’m not trying to suggest there’s no difference between the way capitalism works in the United States and the way it works in Sweden. And I’m not trying to suggest that there’s no difference between Tony Blair and David Cameron, to take the British example. But it is true that all of these countries and all of these politicians have been signed up to this kind of pro-market way of thinking about the economy…

Both political parties have signed onto a neoliberal consensus regarding the economy that says politicians must never “interfere” in the workings of the Market. In essence, Neoliberalism is a back-to-the-future retread of Classical English Liberalism, or laissez-faire, which was the prevailing economic philosophy up until the Gilded Age. Today, dozens of well-funded think tanks once again defend and promote this philosophy and deny any alternatives. The economics profession is basically united behind promoting neoliberalism as the only valid form of economic organization.

I think this is the reason why so few people actually turn out to vote in the United States. When did voting ever change anything? Paychecks keep getting smaller, benefits keep getting more stingy, and things like housing and education keep getting more expensive, regardless of who is in power. It’s simply what the Market decrees, and politicians of any party are powerless to stop it.

At this point, they introduce a very important term: neoliberal democracy.

[24:12] Mark Blyth: “…You have a term of art: neoliberal democracy. What do you mean by that?”

Jonathan Hopkin: “Just to confess, it isn’t my term–Colin Leys dreamt up that concept. It’s the idea that in a neoliberal system, if you take the view that that markets not only are the best way of organizing the economy, but they need to be protected from political interference, because the Public Choice School always argues that democracy is a big threat to the market system because voters will vote for nice things rather than just deserts…”

MB: “What they should get…”

JH: “…What they should get, yeah. And so neoliberal democracy is really a system in which the market is protected from democracy. It means a democratic system which can’t actually enact any change. Some of the things you were talking about earlier like central bank independence is a great example of neoliberal democracy. Supranational rules set by non-majoritarian institutions. ‘Non-majoritarian’ is a political science term to mean ‘not elected’ and ‘not accountable’ institutions. So, like the European Court of Justice when it comes to things like product market rules and labor market rules, or the ECB (European Central Bank) or the Fed (Federal Reserve) or the Bank of England when it comes to monetary policy.”

“So, in essence, it’s democracy without democracy. Its the trappings of democracy without any possibility of a popular majority really bringing about a change to the market system.”

Neoliberal democracy is a system where the market is protected from democracy.  And that’s why people don’t bother voting—because it doesn’t really change anything. This is by design!

So my contention is that, because we can’t really change anything in the economic sphere with our vote—even though the economic sphere has the biggest influence over our lives by far—all we are left to fight over is meaningless “culture war” issues: transgender bathrooms, abortion, guns, gay marriage, drug use, racist jokes, cancel culture, and other such idiotic bullshit. Our leaders are okay with us fighting over this stuff, because it doesn’t affect their wealth or their bottom line. They can go on strip mining society to increase their wealth with impunity. They can move capital around the world and hire and fire people just as easily.

Meanwhile, the people being crushed by this system are kept constantly at each others’ throats over religion, race, sex, and so on. They are unable to unite to provide any kind of concerted opposition. Is the oldest play in the book: divide and conquer.

When you are powerless to change the economic conditions you live under, “values” are the only thing left to vote on. Thus you get the rise of so-called “values voters.”

Seen in this way, wokeness is yet another weapon of Neoliberalism. It’s deployed by the media and corporations as the essence of what it means to be on the “Left” in America, and it’s certain to alienate the working classes and keep them in a perennial state of agitation against the “politically correct” liberals in the boardroom who allegedly despise them. Yet, of course, both blue collar and white collar workers have been proletarianized. But by keeping them from developing class consciousness you stop any effective resistance from forming, because that requires things like solidarity and collective action. Wokeness, deployed by these “Kayfabe-Left” institutions like Hollywood and the corporate media, keeps that from happening.

I heard a quote from Andrew Yang recently that made the same point:

“Right now, if you say to someone…you’re with this person in Ohio and you’re like, ‘Hey get out and vote!’ They look at you, and they’re like, ‘this does not fucking matter to me at all.’ Like, my vote does not matter. And they have in many cases decades of experience telling them just that. And then there are people who will never come near it because they are completely in despair, or they’re completely disconnected from civic society. And that to me is not extraordinary anymore.”

And its not even irrational. That’s the toughest part, Anand. You cant be like, ‘Hey if you just get off your ass and vote everything will be okay.’ Not really. You know, they could come and vote and their person just gets co-opted, or that person is just one vote in a chorus. The power dynamics are so broken. And then selling to them [that] ‘this vote’s going to do it for you. If you can just get that person into city council or school board or…'”

“You know that’s not true. You know that these systems, when they get there, even if they’re good they’re going to get their hands cuffed, and they’re going to be beholden to some assholes, and they’ll be outvoted by the crazy cohort on the city council, or a school board, or the state legislature, or the U.S. Congress, or whatever it happens to be…”

Andrew Yang tries to convince Anand Giridharadas that we need UBI (Yang Speaks)

The voters that Yang talked to during his presidential campaign told him, in essence, My vote does not fucking matter. They know this is true, because the market is insulated from democracy. And Yang can’t really dispute this. From the standpoint of the voters, its totally rational not to vote. After all, they’ve reliably gone out and voted year after year after year. If they’re old enough, they’ve lived through the switch from Democratic control to Republican control back to Democratic control, back to Republican control, and what’s changed for them, really? Nothing! As Joe Biden assured wealthy donors: Nothing will fundamentally change.

This gives us a framework for understanding why that is: neoliberal democracy, which is, in essence, democracy without democracy. They then talk about the anti-system politics of Trumpism in the U.S.:

[26:32] JH: “…I think one of the real misunderstanding of Trump, especially over here, is that underneath the chaotic rhetoric there is quite a clear political line there, which is that its anti-globalization. It’s pro-market, but its markets embedded in a particular view of society, right? So there’s a social order that he wants to protect. It might be a racialized social order; its not an egalitarian social order. But it is a social order in which the market should not be allowed to wipe out the livelihoods of particular groups which have been hard done by, and which Trump would like to protect. Obviously there are other types of groups he doesn’t care for. But it is a vision of society in which the state should have the capacity to shape the market to achieve political and social ends.”

MB: “And that’s very un-neoliberal, and that’s basically in a sense, to bring us back around, why this is an anti-system moment. One of the things you note in your book…is that when you look at the party platforms and speeches and pronouncements and actual polices of all these different anti-system parties, none of them fall into the neoliberal box. It doesn’t matter if they’re Left or Right, they’re all much more pro-state, is that right?”

JH: “Yeah, that’s right. So, I took this data from what’s called the Comparative Manifestos Project. It’s a way of trying to score the positions of political parties in elections all across Western democracies ever since the War. So it’s a huge data set.”

“And what you can get from that is there have been clear shifts in the kind of positions parties take. You can also observe in this data that Social Democratic or Center-Left parties have increasingly abandoned economic interventionism over the post war period. It started to come back a bit in the last decade or so, but they’ve kind of given up on the idea that government can try and shape the market in that that which you were just describing Trump aspiring to do.”

“So you can see in this data that the anti-system parties whether they’re on the Right: Trumpism, Le Pen; or whether they’re on the Left: Sanders, Corbyn, Podemos in Spain, and so on—they’re very different on what we call the socio-cultural dimension of policy: things to do with racial equality, gay rights and so on, but they are very similar actually in economic policy. They’re all arguing for a return to the state; for a return to government having a role in shaping the economy.”

“And in some ways, they’re actually really rather similar. If you look at the British example, Jeremy Corbyn was fairly unenthusiastic about the European Union, partly because the European Union has strict competition laws that mean that governments can’t bail out failing companies, and they can’t have an industrial policy. Well, here we have a new government in Boris Johnson who, before the pandemic, had all kinds of plans for industrial policy in Britain to try and revive the post-industrial north.”

“So there’s actually a strong connection. These parties are way apart on other things, but when it comes to the economy they definitely have a view that the government should get involved. So it’s not neoliberal democracy. It’s actually a form of democracy. It’s a form of government which allows people to take back control, to use the Brexit phrase, of the market economy.”

This next portion ties into exactly what I talked about in the previous post:

MB: “So why do you think it is that most other scholars playing in this area really haven’t made that connection? Really, nobody else points this out. Why are you the only person that’s noticed this?”

JH: “…I think the problem is we both inhabit a world which is geared to not understanding this, right? We are in prestigious academic institutions which have benefited from globalization, which have benefited from some aspects of neoliberalism even though many people in our universities would like neoliberalism to be mitigated…”

MB: “Oh yeah. Many six figure salaries have been made writing about how bad neoliberalism is…”

JH: “Exactly. And I think that this prejudices us a little from seeing how this may look at the sharp end.”

“There was a great example of this. Andy Haldane, who’s not an academic—he’s a Bank of England technocrat; a very honest analyst of what’s happening in Britain—was talking about how a few years back he went up to Sheffield in the north—a very, very depressed region–to talk about the economy. He’d been looking at some data beforehand that his assistants in the Bank of England had been pouring over, and he was thinking, ‘Well, things don’t look too bad, you know, the economy’s recovering and things are looking in the right direction.’ And he got to Sheffield and he suddenly realized that everything was terrible, [and] that people were desperate. And I think in universities, we suffer a bit from some of this, that we don’t get out there enough to see what things are like at the sharp end.”

This is exactly what I said last time: the technocrats look at statistics which tell them that everything is fine. What they do not do is actually go out and visit communities devastated by globalization. Andrew Yang, quoted above, did so, and came to a very different conclusion. But notice that Yang is not an economist. Also note that his remedy—a Universal Basic Income—would be deemed quite impossible by neoliberal economists. How would we pay for it?

They conclude by looking at what the future holds for anti-system politics:

[39:20] JH: “…I think where things will really become clear is when it becomes less of a public health problem and more of an economic problem, which might happen pretty soon. At the moment we’ve got both. But the full implications of this economic shutdown are going to be clearer and clearer as the year goes on. And you can expect [?] to become more and more unpopular.”

“So where we have mainstream parties in government, you would expect that it would give [?] to the anti-system parties. But the really interesting thing is to see where anti-system parties are in there already, and are coping not terribly well with this crisis, what is the effect? Do people revert to the establishment? Or do they go for a different type of anti-system [?]?”

My guess is if you revert to the establishment, you’re going to very quickly be disappointed. So if the outcome in the U.S. is Biden wins the election, I think anybody who’s contemplating voting for Sanders, and a lot of people who supported Trump and lost are going to be really furious very quickly.”

“There’s no sense in which we’re going to return to neoliberal democracy as a satisfactory way of managing the economy, not until we get growth back. And there are all kinds of reasons for thinking that growth is never going to come back to some extent, that that is going to do the job.”

So we need to fundamentally change the way the economy works, and my position—and I’m sure you would agree with this as well—is that in one way or another, that’s going to involve government taking much more responsibility for the way the economy works and getting much more involved in distributing investment and opportunity, and giving people security. There’s no way you can do that in the old neoliberal system. So things are going to have to change, and the question is who’s going to be able to deliver that.”

MB: “…Well that all depends on the quality of your government. If you have a state that you actually trust and seems to know what they’re doing—for example, the Danes—then you’re perfectly willing to hand over fifty percent of your income and let them provide public goods. If you’re the United States or the United Kingdom, there’s pretty good reasons for not believing that these people know what the hell they’re doing, and you don’t want to hand them that chunk of change. That perhaps goes some way to explaining the political polarization that’s out here.”

JH: “Yeah, that true, but its also true that there’s no way around this that doesn’t involve the government becoming the buyer and seller and lender and seller of last resort, right? A huge chunk disappeared from the economy, and you don’t get that back by just the government sitting back and doing some fix like negative interest rates or something, and saying, ‘Let the market sort it out.’ That’s not going to be enough. So it’s going to involve the government getting involved whether or not we really think they’re up to it.”

MB: “But what if they get involved with another healthy bout of austerity…?”

Conclusion: Polanyi was right: Really, all this confirms what Karl Polanyi wrote over fifty years ago. Polanyi argued that an attempt to create a “pure” market society separate from politics would lead to “the destruction of society.” People would not tolerate being subjected to the whims of the market—of watching their livelihoods be destroyed, of watching their businesses go under, of watching people be priced out of their homes, and so on. They would demand redress from their politicians.

The politicians during the first wave of globalization believed that markets were “self-regulating” and therefore should be kept free from “interference.” To that end, they attempted to shield the Market from any kind of attempt on the part of the populace to subject anarchic markets to democratic oversight for the good of the populace as a whole. Now we see neoliberalism doing the exact same thing as its Classical Liberal predecessor: protecting markets from democracy.

The chaos supposedly self-regulating markets caused ultimately led to the Great Depression and the subsequent rise of fascism in Europe and the New Deal in the United States. The common denominator of these movements was to subordinate the Market to the needs of society. In the U.S., the happened democratically. In Europe, this was implemented by fascist regimes that suspended democracy and introduced an us-versus-them dynamic to retain power. As Hopkin noted above, this desire to subjugate economic forces to democratic control can be done by regimes of very different socio-cultural values, from those which preach harmony and inclusiveness, to those who preach racial hated and competition. The form it takes depends on the society. While neoliberalism is regarded as “centrism” today, the populist, or anti-system alternative represents a type of governance that transcends traditional Left-versus-Right. That’s why you get these silly debates over whether the Nazis were “left wing” or “right-wing”. The desire to transcended the Market for the good of society does not map so easily onto the uni-dimensional political axis of today.

In the end, big business will always try and promote an authoritarian/fascist option to prevent a genuine leftist movement from coalescing that would curtail their power. This failed in the United States the last time, but it appears to be succeeding this time around in the United States as well as in many other countries. The wealthy have much more power and more effective means of propaganda at their disposal than they did back then. Neoliberalism, sadly, appears poised to die the same way it’s utopian philosophical twin did several generations ago: through economic collapse and a global conflagration where millions upon millions will perish.

…The passing of the market economy can become the beginning of an unprecedented freedom. Juridical and actual freedom can be made wider and more general than ever before; regulation and control can achieve freedom not only for the few, but for all. Freedom not as an appurtenance of privilege, tainted at the source, but as a prescriptive right extending far beyond the narrow confines of the political sphere into the intimate organization of society itself. Thus will old freedoms and civic rights be added to the fund of new freedom generated by the leisure and security that industrial society offers to all. Such a society can afford to be both just and free.

Yet we find the path blocked by a moral obstacle. Planning and control are being attacked as a denial of freedom. Free enterprise and private ownership are declared to be the essential of freedom. No society built on other foundations is said to deserve to be called free. The freedom that regulation creates is denounced as unfreedom; the justice, liberty and welfare it offers are decried as a camouflage of slavery….

Freedom’s utter frustration in fascism is, indeed, the inevitable result of the liberal philosophy, which claims that power and compulsion are evil, that freedom demands their absence from a human community. No such thing is possible; in a complex society this becomes apparent. This leaves no alternative but either to remain faithful to an illusory idea of freedom and deny the reality of society, or to accept that reality and reject the idea of freedom. The first is the liberal’s conclusion; the latter is the fascist’s. No other seems possible.

The Great Transformation, pp. 256-257


The Reason Americans Don’t Trust Experts – Economists

Who are you going to believe, me, or your own lying eyes?

A lot of digital ink has been spilled recently on the rise and spread of agnotology in America. Why don’t Americans listen to experts anymore? Why don’t they trust scientists? Why do they instinctively assume their leaders are lying to them about everything? Why don’t they trust mainstream news outlets anymore? Why are they instead listening to “outsiders” who are obviously shills and charlatans? Why are they listening to “alternative” medical practitioners and quack doctors? Why are they giving credulity to seemingly outrageous conspiracy theories shared online? Why do they reject basic facts?

A lot has been written about that already, so I’m not going to review it here. I’m just going to interject one reason that I haven’t read about anywhere else that I know of.

That reason is economists.

Specifically, the fact that economists told middle America since at least the 1980s that free trade would be good for everyone in America, and that anyone who said otherwise was an ignorant rube who didn’t understand basic economic “science.”

The economists who incessantly proffered this view were “experts” from the most prestigious schools in America—Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Georgetown, the University of Chicago, and the like. They claimed it was a settled argument, and that economics had “proven” it beyond the shadow of a doubt through equations as surely as we had proven the movements of the stars and planets. Even the way they framed the argument backed this up. They invoked the “Law” of comparative advantage, suggesting that this was a law of the universe on par with those of physics or chemistry. Anyone who disputed it might just was well believe that water runs uphill or the earth is flat, they claimed (although they weren’t above invoking a little magic on occasion):

[David] Ricardo attempted to prove theoretically that international trade is always beneficial. Paul Samuelson called the numbers used in Ricardo’s example dealing with trade between England and Portugal the “four magic numbers”. “In spite of the fact that the Portuguese could produce both cloth and wine with less amount of labour, Ricardo suggested that both countries would benefit from trade with each other”…Ricardo’s theory of international trade was reformulated by John Stuart Mill. The term “comparative advantage” was started by J. S. Mill and his contemporaries… (Wikipedia)

This became a nearly universal creed among economists and journalists. If there was one article of absolute faith, this was it. Surveys of economists indicated that nearly 100 percent of them agreed with statements about how free trade is always beneficial, and that it always benefits everybody. These economists claimed that free trade was an unstoppable force of nature as inevitable as the tides or the seasons, and that it would make all of us much better off in the long run. The most notable proponents of this creed wrote for the influential New York Times: Princeton economist Paul Krugman; and Thomas Friedman, whose boundless enthusiasm and turgid prose in defense of untrammeled trade and cosmopolitanism seemed at times to border on the absurd. Friedman, a multi-millionaire, published several books on the topic over the ensuing decades, celebrating the wonders of globalization and free trade.

So these were the so-called “experts” Americans were listening to throughout the eighties, nineties, and 2000s, right up until 2008.

Free trade—and its universal benefits—became the standard orthodoxy for both major American political parties beginning in the 1990s. The effect of this cannot be overstated. There truly was no alternative. And voters who pushed back against this orthodoxy were belittled and marginalized by both political parties in the ensuing decades.

Now picture the reality on the ground for ordinary middle Americans, particularly in areas that are considered to be Trump bastions in the heartland of the U.S. today.

Businesses that had been the cornerstones of communities for many generations began to disappear left and right. They either lost out in the newly globalized struggle for profits and went under; moved most of their operations overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor; or were bought out in the accompanying wave of financialization and were “restructured.” In each and every instance, these businesses—formerly the sources of prosperity for so many Americans—were gone, never to return. This happened throughout the eighties and nineties.

Just like an ecosystem, a local economy is a sort of trophic pyramid, and once the primary producers have died off, it will affect all the smaller levels of the pyramid above. The money circulating in the community began to dry up for other businesses in the “food chain” of the local economy like small businesses, bars and restaurants. The people who would have been their customers no longer had jobs, and hence the money to pay for local goods and services. What this meant was that small local businesses with tight margins now had less customers and subsequently went under. This led to the phenomenon of “boarded up main streets” seen in small towns all across America. All as the result of free trade agreements.

At the same time, a flood of cheap consumer goods inundated the market in the United States. These ultra-cheap goods were shoddy, Chinese made garbage, practically made to be thrown away, but Americans had no other choice but to buy them thanks to their shrinking incomes and the lack of alternative sellers who had long since gone under due to cutthroat price competition. Gigantic mega-businesses who could most effectively take advantage of far-flung global supply chains drove local businesses under, even while wresting generous subsidies and tax breaks from local governments. As local businesses fell one by one, this led to a domino effect throughout local economies where the businesses that were once cornerstones of the community went under, their market niches invaded by the transnational big-box chain stores. The small corner store getting replaced by Wal-Mart became a cliché repeated thousands of times over across the United States in the past several decades. Everybody knew it was happening, but no one could stop it.

In almost every small town in America, commerce today is dominated by a few behemoths like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Target, Costco, and chains like Applebee’s, Chuck E. Cheese and Taco Bell. All the money that would have circulated in the local economy was instead pulled out and sent to stockholders in New York, San Francisco, London, and other distant financial centers. Whatever small businesses that remained were dealt another successive death blow by the rise of online shopping and the dominance of Amazon’s monopoly over e-commerce. This “retail apocalypse” was ignored by politicians of both parties. Additionally, local newspapers shut down because they could no longer support themselves through ad revenue—everything was now increasingly online and  all the ad money now went to Google and Facebook. This led to information black holes in small towns all over America. People now increasingly went online to get their information, and this online world became a perfect vector for spreading disinformation by bad-faith actors like bots and trolls.

And what happened to the jobs? We were told that people who worked in factories were expendable, and that “making things” was only for dumb losers. Farm jobs had long since been eliminated thank to Big Agriculture. The party that ostensibly defended the working class just told everyone to go out and acquire “more education,” and that this would somehow solve the problem. Yet education did not become more accessible at this time, rather it became prohibitively more expensive and harder to access. Four-year college degrees were practically unobtainable without extensive parental support. The staggering amounts of debt one had to take on without this support practically ensured a lifetime of indentured servitude. This debt became impossible to discharge even in bankruptcy—a change supported by both political parties. Meanwhile, collages and universities became virtual empires overnight, building pharaonic architecture to attract rich students with deep pockets (often foreign-born) and raising tuition into the stratosphere to compensate.

Those who had the financial wherewithal and academic inclination were able to escape to the few remote college towns and distant big cities where such colleges and universities were located. Everyone else was left to drown. The small towns fell into ruin. The Republican columnist Keven Williamson sneered that they “deserved to die,” although it wasn’t entirely clear whether he was referring to the towns themselves or the people living in them. And the other party was no different either, abandoning Middle Americans and making their pitch exclusively to those areas that were, in Hillary Clinton’s words, “diverse, dynamic and moving forward.” High-level Democrats openly enthused that they would have a solid electoral majority once the people in these small towns finally kicked the bucket.

It was a sorting operation on a grand scale—winners from losers, sheep from goats. The “losers” remained behind in the small towns that were drained of their most entrepreneurial inhabitants; the “winners” moved away to a handful of high-tech hubs and exurbs that were growing exponentially, especially in the Sun Belt. Because all of the economic activity was now concentrated in a very small number of cities, the cost of real estate in these cities exploded, making even educated, affluent “winners” economically precarious due to sky-high housing costs. Yet no one in the political or professional economic classes offered any real solutions, or even acknowledged that it was happening.

Meanwhile, back in the small towns, the only jobs left were those in the service industry that paid paid minimum wage or close to it—a wage that had peaked in the 1960s and declined ever since. Here is a graphic of the largest employer in every state. Notice that the “red” states are dominated by Wal-Mart.

The only other alternative was the “Eds and Meds” economy of colleges and hospitals. Both of these metastasizing economic sectors were predatory and extractive, bleeding their customers dry even as they provided the only source of employment in rural areas that paid above minimum wage and offered decent benefits (aside form the prisons that were increasing located in rural areas and filled with the economic “losers”). The graphic above makes this dynamic painfully obvious.

America became staggeringly unequal. An entire infrastructure of poverty developed consisting of payday loan stores, car title loan stores, cash-4-gold stores, blood banks, urgent care clinics, Dollar Stores, pawn shops, and other predatory businesses. Cash-strapped small towns instituted aggressive policing tactics to compensate for lost tax revenue, including issuing very expensive tickets for every minor infraction (which often disproportionately targeted minorities). Tent cities sprang up from coast to coast like dandelions in the springtime. At the corner of seemingly every major intersection and at every freeway off-ramp were people holding up cardboard signs begging for spare change. People started GoFundMe sites to pay for ruinously expensive health care costs, since their low-wage, part-time jobs didn’t offer health insurance coverage. Then, to add insult to injury, beginning in the late nineteen-nineties they now also had to compete for low-wage jobs with immigrants from across the border who were arriving by the truckload in small towns across America in a race to the bottom, while politicians of both parties looked the other way. Any concern over this situation was castigated as “racist.”

All this occurred even while billionaire monopolists become incomprehensibly richer. People in these towns who couldn’t make ends meet no matter how hard they worked were treated to the spectacle of America’s billionaires going to bed at night and waking up billions of dollars richer the next morning, day after day, while their own lives fell apart due to things like unemployment, divorce, drug abuse, arrests, and just plain old bad luck.

What was the “expert” response to all of this? How did the economists from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and other elite institutions react to this economic earthquake?

Free trade is good. Full stop. Anyone who says otherwise is a dimwitted dolt who doesn’t understand the fundamental laws of economics. Besides, nothing can be done about it. They pointed to the affordability and ubiquitousness of ultra-cheap goods made by sweated labor in the global South as proof positive that free trade had benefited absolutely everyone. “Just look at your iPhone!,” they exclaimed.

Americans in small towns and suburbs were also told by these same elite experts that their suffering and that of their close friends and neighbors was justified because Chinese workers were bring “lifted from poverty” even as Americans were increasingly falling into it. Any concern over the increasingly dire poverty and deaths in Middle America was derided as backward parochialism by by professional economists and the neoliberal politicians who listened to them.

These experts, of course, were the same people in big cities who owned almost all the stocks and had benefited handsomely from globalized free trade. These members of what eventually became known as the “Professional Managerial Class” had managed to insulate themselves from foreign competition through legal means such as hard-to-obtain licensing requirements and hyperexpensive education, even while valorizing “competition” for everyone else. Both political parties were one hundred percent in the tank for globalized free trade: the Democrats toothlessly pushed for more education and means-teased social programs for the poorest of the poor, while the Republicans preached an old-fashioned grit-and-bootstraps ethos that castigated people who fell behind for their own lack of gumption and blamed poverty on poor character and moral failings (e.g. having children out of wedlock, excessive drinking). Republicans claimed the real threat to Americans was “dependence on big government” rather than unemployment or economic disintegration.

This message was broadcasted incessantly day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year by professional economists burnished with impressive credentials from America’s finest institutions. They all sang from the same hymnal in absolute harmony. I live in the Rust Belt, and it’s impossible to overstate just how aggressively this message was pushed throughout the eighties, nineties and early 2000s. There was no dissent in the mainstream corporate media; none whatsoever. The “losers” in this system were told that they deserved what they got, we were told, and each and every one of us were now competitors in the high-stakes, winner-take all struggle of globalism, whether we wanted to be or not. There was simply no alternative.

Yet older people remembered a time that it didn’t used to be that way. They remembered when people could easily find a local job if they wanted one, even without a staggeringly expensive degree and massive debt. When you didn’t have to move far away from your family if you didn’t want to. When you could afford to raise family on a single breadwinner’s salary. When you could buy a house in your 20s. A time when there weren’t quite so many boarded up storefronts, panhandlers, food banks, or people living in their cars. When small local businesses thrived instead of just Wal-Mart and Amazon. They told these stories to their children as if they were describing some sort of long-vanished and forgotten culture, even though it had existed within their own lifetimes. As the satirical Onion headline put it, “Remains Of Ancient Race Of Job Creators Found In Rust Belt.” But the unfortunate circumstance of institutionalized racism during this time period allows any sort of nostalgia for this lost era to be dismissed as “racist” by members of the PMC.

What did the highly credentialed experts in economic “science” have to say to these folks? Sorry pops, that world is gone forever, and it’s not coming back. Suck it up, buttercup. Or else they refused to even acknowledge that anything had changed. Educated academics like Harvard’s Steven Pinker told Americans that’ “You literally never had it so good,” as did columnists in the New York Times like Nicholas Kristof. Anyone who said otherwise was derided as a backward parochialist who couldn’t’ understand cold, hard facts. Concern over America’s domestic disintegration—i.e. ordinary Americans who had been harmed by globalization—was derided as hopelessly ignorant and racist by members of the PMC who disproportionately staffed the corporate media and academic apparatus.

So, given the experience of the average American on the ground that I described above, is it really any wonder that experts began to lose their credibility? The average American looked around them and saw with their own two eyes what was happening right in front of them. They saw the increasing joblessness, homelessness, and poverty. They saw how their neighbors were struggling to make ends meet. They saw the boarded up storefronts, the tent cities, the crumbling infrastructure, the payday loan stores, the aggressive police, the people living in their cars, the people working for peanuts at Amazon and Wal-Mart, the foreclosures, the opioid overdoses, the suicides, and on and on and on.

And what did the professional economists continue to tell us? That none of it was happening! There was nothing to worry about, they insisted. After all, the statistics informed us that everything was fine. Throughout it all, economists assured us that free trade was good for everyone, full stop, and both political parties agreed with that assessment. This was the unassailable word of the so-called experts—the very smart economic “scientists” with high IQs and fancy degrees.

During this same time period, economists also told the public that there was little to no inflation. Now there really has been very little inflation, based on what inflation actually measures—a sustained increase in the average prices of goods you normally buy over time. As stated above, the prices of goods actually fell during this time, due to things like global wage arbitrage, automation, price competition by emerging oligopolies, and efficiency gains. Whether it’s towels, furniture or silverware, previous generations often paid much more for their manufactured goods than we do. The price of computers and electronic goods has fallen sharply, to the point where even poor households can afford large flat-screen televisions and smartphones.

The problem is, the average American doesn’t understand what “inflation” is as economists define it. All they know is that their paycheck doesn’t go as far as it used to. They saw the costs of housing skyrocket. They saw education and health care costs practically double each year. Inflation doesn’t measure those things, and there is a good reason for that. Their costs are not determined as much by the overall supply of money as by status competition and monopoly. Real estate is a local market, and the reason for its precipitous rise in growing urban areas is the one we already touched on above.

Nevertheless, such sophisticated arguments fell on deaf ears. Economists persistently told Americans inflation was low, yet the fixed costs of necessities like housing and health care were killing them, which are the very things inflation indexes specifically omit! Economists did a poor job of explaining this logic to the public, in large part due to elitism. By eliminating the very things American were going broke paying for from the inflation calculus, people began to assume that economists were somehow “cheating” or “covering up” these costs on purpose. The fact that these were “official government statistics” made people lose faith in the veracity of what the government was telling them more broadly: “How can ‘inflation’ be low when a hernia operation coast $100,000 and my school just doubled my tuition?”

The other thing economists told middle America was the unemployment rate was low. This, of course, was measured by the “official” unemployment rate. Due to this rate being low, the politicians were able to wave away concerns from their constituents about rising costs and inequality. After all, if the the official unemployment rate was low, they thought, then what are these people complaining about?

But this official unemployment statistics covered up a very different reality experienced by ordinary people on the ground. Sure, unemployment was officially low, but most of the jobs were awful! Competition for higher-paying jobs became ever more fierce over the years, and good paying jobs with benefits ever more out of reach for most people, especially if you didn’t happen to live in an urban area. Big corporate employers in the service sector routinely pared back working hours to avoid paying benefits, and even you worked just one single hour a week you were counted as officially employed. Underemployment was also not counted, meaning that people who had gone out and gotten expensive degrees but could only find low-paying wage work were invisible in the statistics. People dropping out of the workforce were also not counted, and neither were prisoners—both significant numbers of Americans. Finding a job in the era of automation and outsourcing became something like a game of musical chairs.

So this divide between lived experience and “official” government statistics further deepened the rift and sowed mistrust in political institutions and credentialed experts.

The average American also didn’t understand complex financial institutions like the Federal Reserve that increasingly seemed to control everything from behind the scenes. All the average American saw was that Wall Street and the wealthy investor class were repeatedly bailed out and made whole at every turn, while the average citizen was left to drown during the financial crisis. This led to the rise of all sort of kooky conspiracy theories such as those outlined in the notorious best-seller “The Creature from Jekyll Island”, which has been aggressively pushed by libertarian conspiracy theorists like Ron Paul, who insist that “fiat money” is the real reason behind the nation’s economic pain. Such theories obscured the actual reasons for this pain, such as a generation of stagnant wages, financial engineering, the demise of unions, global competition, corporate consolidation, and both political parties being run by and for a small group of wealthy oligarchs.

This was the economists’ gospel in a nutshell: Free trade is good; unemployment and inflation are low. That was the mantra from their eighties onward through today. And, even though some of the confusion is based on misunderstanding, this “reality” described by economists was 180 degrees opposite from what most Americans have experienced in their own lives from the 1980’s onward.

So, given all of the above, is it any wonder Americans stopped trusting the experts?

Think about that. Let me just say that again: the experts told them that what they saw happening all around them was not actually happening. So that’s what I mean when I say that economists are a major reason why people have lost trust in both credentialed experts and the mainstream corporate media.

And yet they somehow they trust Donald Trump. Why? Because back in 2016 Trump acknowledged that what they saw all around them was actually happening! In fact, he was the only politician to do so. It’s true that a few others like Bernie Sanders did as well, yet the Democratic party was successful in stifling his message and keeping him off the ballot. The Republican Party, ironically, had much less control over its rank-and-file members. These members of the party finally had a candidate who said out loud what they all knew to be true, and had been true for a long time. He phrased it crudely, and with an undercurrent of xenophobia and racism, but at least he acknowledged what the experts had arrogantly and confidently told them wasn’t happening.

So is it really a surprise they now trust Donald Trump more than these so-called experts? Given what I outlined above, is any wonder that the people who live in the small towns and rural villages across the country transferred their faith and loyalty from the credentialed experts to Trump? After all, the credentialed experts had been saying that free trade was good for everyone for nearly forty years. Trump said otherwise, and was the only one who did so (outside of the dissident parts of the Left that had been expelled from the mainstream Democratic party and had no political home, that is). Given the number of times I referred to columnists at The New York Times above, is it any wonder why people in small towns believe that the Times is “fake news?”

Of course, as I’ve said so many times before on this site, economics is a pseudoscience, and economists are really pushing political agendas rather than doing any sort of objective “science.” But I believe that the sneering dismissal of the ignorant rabble that emanated from the ivory towers of academia over the past forty years of neoliberal globlization set the stage for the rejection of any and all expertise that we are now experiencing on the part of the common people. The blowback means that real scientists—actual, legitimate physical scientists and medical doctors—are not being listened too either, thanks to the specious scientific pretensions that economists claimed while free trade was gutting the middle class. To the average American, these are yet more experts pissing on their leg and telling them its raining, just like the economists did for all those years. Why should we believe them?

For example, the conspiracy theories invoked to explain why inflation was low in the statistics but seemingly high in real life took on a life of their own. After all, if you can believe in a secret cabal of bankers and politicians running the Federal reserve, and government statisticians manipulating the unemployment rate, is it that big a leap to believe in a secret cabal of businessmen deliberately engineering a recession, or a secret cabal of virologists secretly engineering a global pandemic? We’ve practically been primed to believe it thanks to the economists’ pretensions of dressing up of political opinions as economic “science” over the past several decades.

The real reason for the economic pain of so many Americans was obscured because it had to be. If people really knew the truth, it would inevitably lead to a push for Leftist politics of the type promoted by Bernie Sanders, and this is the greatest fear among the oligarchs who run America. To avoid that (from their standpoint, terrifying) outcome, the oligarchs had no choice but to peddle paranoid conspiracy theories as the alternative. But now, like the sorcerer’s apprentice from the fairy tale, they have lost control of their own creation. The politics of conspiracy and paranoia have been let loose from Pandora’s Box and are beyond anyone’s ability to control and manipulate at this point. The duplicity of economists, the corporate media and politicians pushing globalism as good for everyone has destroyed the credibility of all experts, not just economists. It has killed faith and trust in media and the experts, no matter how reasonable or accurate those experts may be. This will not end well. We are truly lost, and cannot even find our way to the truth anymore, nor recognize it if we could.

But it all started with economists. Remember that.

ADDENDUM: The economics profession was also instrumental in getting us to ignore environmental limits and denying the consequences of climate change. In doing so, they attacked the credibility of actual scientists, and that has also contributed to the lack of faith in experts we are seeing today.

Have We Entered the Ages of Discord?

Peter Turchin, of Secular Cycles fame, predicted that political violence and discord in the United States would reach a peak in 2020 (or thereabouts). He even put that prediction in writing in a book entitled Ages of Discord:

In 2010 I made the prediction that the United States will experience a period of heightened social and political instability during the 2020s…Structural-demographic theory (SDT) suggests that the violence spike of the 2020s will be worse than the one around 1970, and perhaps as bad as the last big spike during the 1920s. Thus, the expectation is that there will be more than 100 events per 5 years. In terms of the second metric, we should expect more than 5 fatalities per 1 million of population per 5 years, if the theory is correct.

And there you have it. If violence doesn’t exceed these thresholds by 2025, then SDT is wrong.

A Quantitative Prediction for Political Violence in the 2020s (Cliodynamica)

And the 1970s were pretty bad. From a review of Ages of Discord at Slate Star Codex:

The 1970s underground wasn’t small. It was hundreds of people becoming urban guerrillas. Bombing buildings: the Pentagon, the Capitol, courthouses, restaurants, corporations. Robbing banks. Assassinating police. People really thought that revolution was imminent, and thought violence would bring it about.

Book Review: Ages Of Discord (Slate Star Codex)

See also Coronavirus and Our Age of Discord (Cliodynamica)

There are several general trends during the pre-crisis phase that make the rise and spread of pandemics more likely. At the most basic level, sustained population growth results in greater population density, which increases the basic reproduction number of nearly all diseases. Even more importantly, labor oversupply, resulting from overpopulation, depresses wages and incomes for most. Immiseration, especially its biological aspects, makes people less capable of fighting off pathogens. People in search of jobs move more and increasingly concentrate in the cities, which become breeding grounds for disease. Because of greater movement between regions, it is easy for disease to jump between cities.

Elites, who enjoy growing incomes resulting from low worker wages, spend them on luxuries, including exotic ones. This drives long-distance trade, which more tightly connects distant world regions. My 2008 article is primarily about this process, which we call “pre-modern globalizations.” As a result, a particularly aggressive pathogen arising in, for example, China, can rapidly jump to Europe.

Finally, when the crisis breaks out, it brings about a wave on internal warfare. Marauding armies of soldiers, rebels, and brigands, themselves become incubators of disease that they spread widely as they travel through the landscape.

This description is tailored to pre-modern (and early modern) Ages of Discord. Today, in 2020, details are different. But the main drivers — globalization and popular immiseration — are the same…

Right now Turchin is starting to look like Nostradamus. He hasn’t addressed this so far on his blog, but I’m interested to hear his take.

One thing I wonder about though: the police state is so much more powerful than it was in the 1970s due to digital surveillance technology. I mean, everyone carries around a device that tracks all their movements all the time, and the few who don’t will be noticeable by their absence. Cameras are everywhere. Our online presence is constantly monitored, as Edward Snowden revealed (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that laws prohibiting government monitoring of the citizenry have been repealed just in the last few weeks). Plus, the systems of cybernetic control for managing large populations are so much more sophisticated, as Adam Curtis described in All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. I think these cybernetic systems also foment discord as well, since they allow segments of the population to live in completely separate realities managed by different sets of elites—there is no consensus reality anymore, as responses to the pandemic showed.

But it does seem like an alarming number of people have been disenfranchised and have no constructive outlet for their anger, and no effective recourse for changing the system anymore. Add to that Great Depression levels of popular immiseration while elites are being bailed out with unlimited funds. This is what happens when you make peaceful revolution impossible—violent revolution becomes inevitable.

UPDATE: Turchin’s latest post (June 1)

What is much more certain is that the deep structural drivers for instability continue to operate unabated. Worse, the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated several of these instability drivers. This means that even after the current wave of indignation, caused by the killing of George Floyd, subsides, there will be other triggers that will continue to spark more fires—as long as the structural forces, undermining the stability of our society, continue to provide abundant fuel for them.