The Malefactors of Great Wealth
I came across a quote from a speech in Oreskes and Conway’s (2014) ‘The Collapse of Western Civilization’. At this point, I will not name or date the speechmaker. I thought it interesting as a view on the relationship between a nation-state and its wealthy individuals and thus on the nature of democracy. What follows are parts of the speech with some commentary in bold.
“National sovereignty is to be upheld in so far as it means the sovereignty of the people used for the real and ultimate good of the people; and state’s rights are to be upheld in so far as they mean the people’s rights. Especially is this true in dealing with the relations of the people as a whole to the great corporations which are the distinguishing feature of modern business conditions“.
The democratic deficit in both the USA and in Europe is that increasingly voters’ rights are being increasingly limited and bound by the rights of corporations and through the actions of corporate lobbying and political influence. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) further threatens nation-state and citizen democracy by allowing corporations to sue governments if they implement social and environmental protection legislation that the corporation deems a barrier to trade. Thus, national sovereignty is being eroded by such new legislation that does not recognise the sovereignty of people. Globalised capital flows are also eroding national sovereignty through capital mobility and a lack of a globalised governance in such issues as tax evasion and climate protection.
“Experience has shown that it is necessary to exercise a far more efficient control than at present over the business use of those vast fortunes, chiefly corporate, which are used in interstate business“.
More efficient control is now seen as anti-business and anti-democratic by the corporate class executive and the political power elites within a neoliberal idiocy that wants less and less state interference on behalf of citizens.
“But there is a growing determination that no man shall amass a great fortune by special privilege, by chicanery and wrongdoing, so far that it is in the power of legislation to prevent; and that a fortune, however amassed shall not have a business use that is antisocial“.
This determination has been somewhat diluted as exemplified in Peter Mandelson’s famous quote that New Labour was “Intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” and Boris Johnson’s eulogy to the rich as an ‘oppressed minority’. In addition, we have Tax laws favouring the 1% and their offshore havens and finance capital that rewards fancy financial products while being socially useless. They argue as an article of faith that if taxes on the rich go up, job creation go down to justify their snouts in the trough. Nick Hanauer debunks this idea in this short Ted talk. In his view, the rich are not job creators.
“Almost every big business is in engaged in interstate commerce and…must not be allowed…to escape thereby all responsibility either to state or to nation“.
Globalisation. For some CEOs, this means that “If you don’t like our employment practices and wage structures then we will take our investments elsewhere; we will take advantage of the weakness of global labour and call it flexibility. You should be grateful you even have a job”. It also means avoiding paying much in the way of tax, or bypassing safety and environmental regulations either by lobbying to ensure regulations are their own, or by actual criminal activity.
“The…people became firmly convinced of the need of control over these great aggregations of capital, especially where they had a monopolistic tendency…”
‘The people’ have today become blind or disorganised, many have been persuaded to vote against their class interests. Many wish there was greater control, but are unsure of how to do it. Many more are disillusioned and disengaged. Many have been persuaded by Elite authoritarian populists that it is the ‘Liberal Metropolitan Elite’ who are the problem.
“There is, unfortunately, a certain number of our fellow countrymen who seem to accept the view that unless a man can be proved guilty of some particular crime he shall be counted a good citizen no matter how infamous a life he has led, no matter how pernicious his doctrines or his practices“.
Welcome to Presidents Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Modi et al. CEO’s of certain banks, some hedge fund managers, asset strippers, CEO’s in the fossil fuel lobby and industry, climate change deniers…..many who form part of the corporate class executive who view corporate social responsibility either as marketing ploy and as a façade to mask their antisocial and anti-environmental business practices. Their rewards are knighthoods, huge salaries and bonuses, because their activities are legal and increase shareholder value.
“There is a world-wide financial disturbance, it is felt in Paris and Berlin…on the New York stock exchange the disturbance has been particularly severe…it may well be the determination of the government…to punish certain malefactors of great wealth…”
They are conspicuous by their absence in criminal courts and yet no common thief has ever cost the country so much.
“….who shall rule this country – the people through their governmental agents or a few ruthless and domineering men, whose wealth makes them particularly formidable, because they hide behind breastworks of corporate organisation“.
We know the answer now. Government agents are discredited, lobbied or have become representatives of Capital, not the people.
“I…hope that the legislation that deals with the regulation of corporations engaged in interstate business will also deal with the rights and interest of the wageworkers…it will be highly disastrous if we permit ourselves to be misled by the pleas of those who see in an unrestricted individualism the all-sufficient panacea for social evils…”
Hayek, Friedman, Reagan, Thatcher, Bush, Blair, Cameron. The high priests of neoliberal individualism who first philosophised and then preside and encourage low wage, part time, zero hours economies and call this ‘labour flexibility’.
“The rich man who with hard arrogance declines to consider the rights and the needs of those who are less well off, and the poor man who excites or indulges in envy and hatred of those who are better off, are alien to the spirit of our national life. There exists no more sordid and unlovely type of social development than a plutocracy for there is a peculiar unwholesomeness on a social and governmental idea where wealth by and of itself is held up as the greatest good. The materialism of such a view finds its expression in the life of a man who accumulates a vast fortune in ways that are repugnant to every instinct of generosity and fair dealing or whether it finds expression in the vapidly useless and self-indulgent life of the inheritor of that fortune…”
We now have demonization of the working class, poverty porn on our TVs and victim blaming focusing on immigrants, welfare claimants and benefit cheats as a way of deflecting public anger on the state of public finances and the accumulation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. The 1% now blame the poor for their fecklessness and lack of hard work resulting in the poor man increasingly turning to such ‘tools’ as jihadist ideology in reprisals. Meanwhile the middle classes in the UK bleat on about inheritance tax that is set at such a level that most of them will not pay it in any case. Turkeys voting for Christmas, Lemmings searching for cliffs, donkeys asking for whips.
This speech was given by President Roosevelt 1907 – the words in bold are mine. There is nothing new under the sun, the same issues regarding wealth and its influence and practices exercised Roosevelt over a hundred years ago. Between then and now various policies and legislation were put in place to deal with those worries. However, we have now reverted back to a time when we can again speak of the ‘Malefactors of Great Wealth’. This time around Obama is aware of inequality as a ‘defining challenge of our time’but is wary of raising it for fear of being accused of class warfare. Roosevelt had no qualms about calling these people out for what they are. Obama has been replaced by Trump who exemplifies in his very being perhaps the ideal type of the ‘Malefactor of Great Wealth’.