Triumph of the Well-Off: Part One

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For weeks and months now, I have wondered “what if?” How far will the president go before someone has the wherewithal to step in? This sense of foreboding is encapsulated brilliantly by MSNBC in the advertisement for their evening line-up. With Radiohead’s National Anthem playing in the background, Brian Williams 2.0  asks his conservative Republican guest: “Who is there to stop this and speak truth to power?” Answer: “Absolutely no one.” This is dramatic stuff and it induces in me the fear of totalitarianism, specifically fascism.

Earlier this week, I listened to an interview with Joshua Green, whose recently published book, The Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, And The Storming Of The Presidency, has many a pundit talking. What alarmed me about that interview was Green’s insistence that Bannon was a true believer. I have always found Steve Bannon to be a frightening creature. He has seemed to be the genuine ideologue in the cast of thoughtless players setting up the current catastrophe in the US government. He has also seemed to be taking a smaller role, so I had become less worried about him in recent months. But Green’s appearance in this week’s news cycle reignited my concerns. As the MSNBC’s advertisement for itself seems to scream: are we headed for a fascist dictatorship?

But a mere four days passed and the answer became clear when Sean Spicer resigned, and Anthony Scaramucci stepped in.  I can come to no other conclusion: Steve Bannon will cease to be relevant;  fascism will not envelop the US.

I came to this conclusion while reading the Guardian UK’s account of Spicer’s resignation. I stopped midway and felt an extraordinary sense of relief. There was no one word, phrase, sentence, or factoid that evoked this response. Call it intuition. Or more accurately, call it “remembering.” As in remembering that capitalism will not go gently into a good night or anywhere else for that matter. As in remembering that global capitalism is the single most influential organizing structure in human society. As in remembering that capitalism has no ideology, no  boundaries, no walls or borders, no nations. In other words, remembering that capitalism is antithetical to fascism. As with all big ideas, that is both good news and bad news. For the over 99% of people who share half the world’s wealth, at least we might avoid another war-to-end-all-wars. For those of us in the US we can, at this point, safely assume that capitalism will not allow us to be jailed or interned or literally enslaved.  And to realize this, I simply had to remember how capitalism works.

As we all know by now, Scaramucci is a hedge fund manager. I am no finance expert, but I know enough to know this: the very concept of the hedge fund is like something Sith lords would have cooked up in a fictional science fiction universe, only more covert. Now Scaramucci is no ignoramus. Like President Obama and more than a handful of powerful politicians, he graduated from Harvard Law. Additionally, unlike Jared Kushner, Scaramucci seems to have earned his way into Harvard. Scaramucci also worked for Goldman Sachs. This might have been ironic a few months ago, given the current president’s constant pummeling of Hillary Clinton regarding her cozy relationships with Wall Street. But that sort of hypocrisy—or, more simply, lying—and the lack of accountability for it, is the new normal.

After Goldman Sachs, Scaramucci started his own firm, SkyBridge Capital in 2005. But he really began to make his mark when he started the Salt Conference in 2009. 

In that same year, President Obama delivered this message to the bankers who had bankrupted millions of people and were then bailed out by the federal government: “But, you know, you are not going to be able to give out these big bonuses until you pay taxpayers back. You can’t get corporate jets. You can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers’ dime.”

Many bankers listened; Scaramucci did not. It paid off for him.

When I read up on Salt, I immediately thought, “Oh, it’s like TED for bankers.” “Bankers” is my word for anyone involved in finance. It shares quite a bit of TED’s model, including the fact that its owner, Scaramucci, treated it as a brand in itself  rather than simply an event. Eventually, like the early versions of TED, the Salt Conference-now-SALT also seemed to use diverse and somewhat inexplicable speakers, whose purpose seems to be less the conveyance of any message and more with creating a brand. I wish I had thought of that when I was organizing the Crossing the Boundaries conference, which is now in its 25th year: Monetize that conference! But I was naive in the 1990s: I didn’t think of conferences as assets.

Scaramucci’s conference was, of course, much different than Crossing the Boundaries. Just one year after its founding, Bill Clinton was its keynote speaker. After that, the dominoes fell. One highlight of this year’s SALT gathering was that its featured speakers list was as diverse as it’s ever been, including Joe Biden, David Cameron, Dana Carvey and  . . . wait for it, Mike Tyson. The second thing that stood out was that this year, SALT was “spun-out” as a stand-alone entity. I can only guess that sale of this asset must have brought in enough money that Scaramucci feels comfortable taking a government salary.

Despite supporting Trump during the campaign and transition, Scaramucci was not embraced by the White House. He also didn’t seem to think much of Congress. He told a writer from New York magazine: “The other thing I have learned about these people in Washington . . . is they have no money. So what happens when they have no fucking money is they fight about what seat they are in and what the title is. Fucking congressmen act like that. They are fucking jackasses.” 

So, what happened here? I suspect that other capitalists got to Scaramucci, and implored him to be their ambassador to the administration, which has been on death-spiral watch from the beginning.  The chaos was okay for bankers at first. It was okay when the leader of the country with the largest economy on the planet was a misogynist, racist, and opportunistic pig. But at a sustained level, the almost-literally-insane shenanigans in the White House is not conducive to the accumulation of wealth. Stability is needed. Cue the entrance of the emissary deployed from the inner sanctum of the people who own half the planet.

And today, we are reading about how Steve Bannon is not pleased with this turn of events. That should be no surprise if you took a few PoliSci courses in college and, like me, listened to Joshua Green earlier this week.

Bannon is a fascist and nationalist. Fascism is a form of totalitarianism that requires ideology, discipline, devotion, and a powerfully nationalist emotional tone. For the US, fascism would  require secure borders, definitive nation-states, and an official state-controlled media.

Fascism is also antithetical to early twenty-first century global capitalism. Capitalism requires open borders, open trade, and non-state actors. This makes global capitalism helpful in avoiding fascism. But it does nothing to avoid totalitarianism of a different sort.

Capitalism today is an especially pernicious form of totalitarianism. I know people will call me out on using the term “totalitarianism” and suggest I use the more accepted term “oligarchy” instead.

But look at it this way: 62 individuals (out of an estimated 7,500,000,000) on the planet own 50% of its wealth. Totalitarianism/oligarchy? Potato/potato.

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