What’s Wrong with the World

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The Content of Our (Leaders') Character (and Portfolios)

One of the defining characteristics of the age is the slow, seemingly inexorable extrusion of elites and establishments from the societies they purportedly represent and 'serve' - if so quaint and republican a term can even be applied to their work in office. While it is fashionable among conservatives to ridicule John Edward's declarations that we are becoming two Americas, and while Edward's understanding of the emerging divisions among us is surely simplistic, conservatives are mistaken to make such quick resort to mockery and scorn. Disdain may be a sign of unassailable loftiness, of a position that cannot be challenged; it can also be a sign of exhaustion and intellectual torpor, a failure to see beyond the poverty of an expression to the reality to which, however inadequately, it points.

Patrick Deneen is one who is able to look beyond the superficial rhetorical exchanges of mainstream politics in order to see the seamy underside of our politics; sometimes, what is uncovered is fascinating, not in itself, but because of what it signifies. So it is with recent news concerning the disposition of Vice President Dick Cheney's considerable investments, to which Deneen devoted a few paragraphs of contextualization. Noting that Cheney and his investment advisers are concerned about an unsustainable global wealth bubble, he observes that

Cheney has invested heavily in "a fund that specializes in short-term municipal bonds, a tax-exempt money market fund and an inflation protected securities fund. The first two hold up if interest rates rise with inflation. The third is protected against inflation."


Even more interesting: Cheney has dumped another (estimated) $10 to $25 million in a European bond fund, suggesting that he is counting on a steadily weakening dollar. I guess "Old Europe" isn't all bad after all - at least not their currency. As Blackburn wryly notes, "Not all bad news is bad for everybody."

I must apologize for being so impolitic, but this is no mere matter of what a man does with his own money. The man in question is a powerful public figure, a figure who, in his private capacities in industry and his public capacities as Vice President under Bush the Younger and Defense Secretary under Bush the Elder, has been instrumental in the formulation and application of that strategy of openness which has issued in the accelerating integration of American economic structures into an emerging global architecture. This process of globalization, of 'free trade' neoliberalism, has entailed the hollowing out of American industry and the increasing prominence of, not production, but consumption as the foundation of American 'prosperity'. It has, by facilitating that hollowing out, that reduction of many American industries to little more than glorified middleman functions, thereby increased the importance of the financial services sector to the economy as a whole - which is to say, has increased the importance of debt and the instruments of debt to the functioning of the economy. This, in turn, entails inflation, the devaluation of the dollar, and the increasing financial leverage of creditor nations over the American economy and nation.

And from this process, Cheney waxed fat. And now that this process hurtles onward to the inevitable correction of its contradictions, Cheney seeks to secure himself against the consequences of the very economic logic which not only made him wealthy, but which he has advocated.

This is scarcely a matter of private financial prudence, therefore; it is something more telling, something indicative of the tenor of the times. The elites have purposed to make a separate peace:

Our elites, our educated and successful professionals, are the ones who are supposed to dig us out and lead us. I refer specifically to the elites of journalism and politics, the elites of the Hill and at Foggy Bottom and the agencies, the elites of our state capitals, the rich and accomplished and successful of Washington, and elsewhere. I have a nagging sense, and think I have accurately observed, that many of these people have made a separate peace. That they're living their lives and taking their pleasures and pursuing their agendas; that they're going forward each day with the knowledge, which they hold more securely and with greater reason than nonelites, that the wheels are off the trolley and the trolley's off the tracks, and with a conviction, a certainty, that there is nothing they can do about it.

I suspect that history, including great historical novelists of the future, will look back and see that many of our elites simply decided to enjoy their lives while they waited for the next chapter of trouble. And that they consciously, or unconsciously, took grim comfort in this thought: I got mine. Which is what the separate peace comes down to, "I got mine, you get yours."

This is not mere hypocrisy, no simple "let them eat cake" moment. This is how nations, nay, entire civilizations perish. The best and brightest no longer serve the nation - they are not among those seeking the separate peace, for those seeking that peace are never the best and brightest, but merely the most ambitious. The best and brightest, like the wise men of Platonic myth, eschew the politics of such a nation, for they corrupt, deprave, and are altogether too likely to send one to perdition; the possibilities of power are like the One Ring, and the wise man knows that he must flee from that. We have needed no revolution to liquidate the best part of the nation, only a system which excludes them as a black hole extinguishes even light. Our leaders not only create dissolution and decay, they profit from it coming and going, and the rest are left to seek what shelter they may find from the relentless buffeting of a system that answers not to them.

"Money talks; patriots walk." And for leaders, statesmen, who will actually shoulder the burdens of history with those they would lead, showing true nobility - for this the Republic waits in vain.

Comments (7)

You don't prove your thesis, though you repeat in several different forms. You have not demonstrated anything but a couple of investment decisions and you have certainly not made the (very dubious) case that Dick Cheney is the engineer, in any meaningful fashion, of free trade, nor that there is any economist of any credibility on earth that believes protectionism -- which you seem to prefer as a policy, though you do not defend it -- could do anything but cause a depression, which is all it ever has done in the past.

This is not a matter of Cheney having been the engineer of free trade, but merely a matter of his having been involved, through his private sector work, and his role in administrations famed for their articulations of new world orders and the march of democratic capitalism (anyone doubting this ought to read the book by Prof. Bacevich from which I excerpted a quote in an earlier thread.), in the perpetuation of a strategy of global openness and integration - a strategy that entails free trade. As consideration of that strategy makes plain, foreign policy, national security, and trade policy are cut from the same cloth, and aim at the same objects via varying routes; there really isn't anything left to prove.

As regards protectionism, the case that it can generate national wealth needn't be made, despite the autism of the guild of economists, because an abundance of historical examples exist of more or less protectionist powers rising to affluence: early capitalist Britain, which rose to wealth and power long before the utilitarian free-traders of the early nineteenth century entered the political and intellectual scene; her wealth reposed on the foundation of an integrated internal market and industrial mass production. Contemporary Japan, which maintains a high standard of living, and yet also maintains numerous protectionist measures, which occasionally prompt all manner of carping in certain quarters here in America, is another example. It is almost universally agreed among analysts of Japan that slow growth over the past 15 years owes to structural conditions in the banking sector, and not to tariffs and the like. There is also the history of America's emergence as an economic power of the first rank, in the post-bellum period, and expansion facilitated in part by some of the very protectionist measures that figured in the War Between the States.

Any economic policy, suitably misapplied, mismanaged, and incompetently adjusted, can yield depression as a consequence; there is no simple formula, such as, "practice free trade", for the avoidance of depression.

Seems like common sense to me - if other countries protect their home industries and prosper (like China?) and we don't, it doesn't seem like we can last for long.

Free trade is sort of the reverse Reagan economist definition (an economist is someone who proves why something that works in practice can't work in theory). That is, a free trader (or globalist) is one who proves why free trade works in theory even though it doesn't work in practice.

And that is perhaps the most succinct and pithy way of stating that free trade is an ideology that I've heard. Well said.

Two things:

Are you perhaps reading a bit much into this? It's surely unseemly for a vice-president to in effect be betting against the country he supposedly helps govern, but is this a thought-through political act, or merely financial prudence? Or is part of the problem that we so easily distinguish between the two?

Secondly, isn't the detachment of rulers from the ruled really a return to the normal state of human affairs? True, it is incompatible with the myth of democracy, but it is hardly the only feature of the American regime of which this can be said. Rule by frankly foreign élites is a pretty common phenomenon, and even native élites usually waste no time in making themselves foreign from the people they rule. Technology has enabled the globalization of production, finance, education, and the capitalist and culture-producing (entertainers, artists, academics, journalists, etc.) classes. At the same time, it has rendered obsolete, at least in first-rank states, the large-scale warfare that necessitated nationalism and emancipation in the first place. The nation-state really is, in other words, obsolete in a very important sense, and so we advance to something much older: Empire.

I would say that the nation-state is not obsolete, rather that it has been discarded as not profitable enough by those very classes you list.

Well, I certainly did not mean to imply that Cheney's investment decisions were the outcome of some deliberate, politically-tinged thought process. Far from it. What I find revealing and appalling in this is that there was no such thought-process at all. It is utterly unexceptional that a prominent member of the American elite should implicate himself in an economic programme with foreseeable, feature-not-bug downsides, profit from that process, and then turn around and bet against his own nation when the bills come due. The problem is precisely the fact that we distinguish between these public and private acts, not seeing them as the products of a personal and political whole - which is a roundabout way of suggesting that honour is dead. The only unity we recognize is that of a fatter bank account.

And yes, the detachment of the rulers is a return to a broader historical norm; but there is a decisive difference between the political economy of postmodernity - I'm partial to the thesis of Frederic Jameson that postmodernity is merely the theoretical epiphenomenon of late modern economic and social forces - and both the ancient empires and medieval Christendom: these latter two classes of political formations never succeeded in accomplishing - in the case of antiquity - and never haboured the ambition to attempt - in the case of the medievals - the obliteration of the local, organic, and subsidiary communities, orders, and governments that the nation-state has already domesticated or abolished. The empires now aborning confront an utterly flat field for the exercise of power and the articulation of structures of exploitation, or perhaps, complete the "creative destruction" initiated by the nation-states: the postmodern empire, the post-international order is truly a dark parody of catholicity.

An affirmation of the abiding value of the nation-state is merely a choice for a known quantity, a familiar evil, in preference to an indistinct evil that already reveals itself to require greater sacrifices.

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