Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Redistribution of Blessings

Those who read this blog regularly may have wondered what my first Right Wing Acquaintance, RWA1, has had to say about the Occupy Wall Street protests. Not all that much, and it's predictable enough. Early on he was critical of their anti-Wall Street, anti-corporate stance; I pointed out that they had that in common with the Tea Party, which he'd defended. They're both guilty, he replied, but I don't recall his linking to any stories from the right-wing press chiding the Tea Party for its hostility to capitalism.

Sometime later he attacked OWS as dirty "rabble." Like many right-wingers, RWA1 can't make up his mind. When he wants his NPR opera programs, he's an elitist; but at other times "elite" and "elitist" are cusswords for him, and he prefers cornpone just-folks media like The National Review or The Wall Street Journal. But he has that in common with many leftists. Elitism is a populist value, as I've said before.

The other day, RWA1 linked with approval to this article by the Libertarian pundit and head of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr., who declares that The State Is the 1 Percent.
The "occupy" protest movement is thriving off the claim that the 99 percent are being exploited by the 1 percent, and there is truth in what they say. But they have the identities of the groups wrong. They imagine that it is the 1 percent of highest wealth holders who are the problem. In fact, that 1 percent includes some of the smartest, most innovative people in the country — the people who invent, market, and distribute material blessings to the whole population. They also own the capital that sustains productivity and growth.

But there is another 1 percent out there, those who do live parasitically off the population and exploit the 99 percent. Moreover, there is a long intellectual tradition, dating back to the late Middle Ages, that draws attention to the strange reality that a tiny minority lives off the productive labor of the overwhelming majority.
I'm speaking of the state, which even today is made up of a tiny sliver of the population but is the direct cause of all the impoverishing wars, inflation, taxes, regimentation, and social conflict. This 1 percent is the direct cause of the violence, the censorship, the unemployment, and vast amounts of poverty, too.
Showing off his advanced mathematical skills, Rockwell introduces the real 1 percent.
Look at the numbers, rounding from latest data. The US population is 307 million. There are about 20 million government employees at all levels, which makes 6.5 percent. But 6.2 million of these people are public-school teachers, whom I think we can say are not really the ruling elite. That takes us down to 4.4 percent.

We can knock of another half million who work for the post office, and probably the same who work for various service department bureaus. Probably another million do not work in any enforcement arm of the state, and there's also the amazing labor-pool fluff that comes with any government work. Local governments do not cause nationwide problems (usually), and the same might be said of the 50 states. The real problem is at the federal level (8.5 million), from which we can subtract fluff, drones, and service workers.

In the end, we end up with about 3 million people who constitute what is commonly called the state. For short, we can just call these people the 1 percent.
This is really rather generous of him. Unlike many on the Right, including the self-styled Libertarian Koch Brothers, Rockwell doesn't consider schoolteachers, post office workers, law enforcement, firefighters, or others "who work for various service department bureaus" to be the parasites who are riding ordinary people, Old Man of the Sea-like, to exhaustion with their collective bargaining and ruinous pensions.

But Rockwell is (carefully?) vague about the actual identity of the real One Percenters. We have one President, one Vice-President, one hundred Senators, four hundred thirty-five Representatives, nine Supreme Court justices. Even if you add the fifty state governors, and the (probably thousands) of judges at the federal and state levels, this comes up a bit short of the three million Rockwell blames for "all the impoverishing wars, inflation, taxes, regimentation, and social conflict ... the violence, the censorship, the unemployment, and vast amounts of poverty, too." This also puts him at odds with the rest of the Right, who are more inclined to blame poverty, violence, and social conflict on the rabble, especially Negroes and Meskins, not to mention the Irish. And whatever happened to the Islamofascists? Besides, inflation, unemployment, and poverty are in Laissez-faire theory mere collateral damage in the business cycle, though of course its advocates claim that they would be much less troublesome if not for the market distortions wrought by the State. No, I don't think Rockwell's analysis will go over well with most of his compatriots, except that its stirring vagueness might allow them to overlook these little problems.

But there's something else. Leave aside that strange blip about the saints who "invent, market, and distribute material blessings to the whole population" -- distribute? It's almost as if he thought they merely handed them out to us, asking in return only whatever donations seemed fair to us. But I suppose by "distribute" he means transportation, warehousing, and sale. Still, it's an odd choice of word.

The real problem begins with his claim that OWS "is thriving off the claim that the 99 percent are being exploited by the 1 percent", which Rockwell allows to be true provided the 1 percent are defined as the State. There are different formulations of OWS' claims, of course, but Rockwell's seems a bit off to me, especially given the movement's focus on Wall Street, which invents, markets, and distributes nothing to the whole population. Indeed, as a good Libertarian Rockwell must be aware that corporations and the shares and other financial instruments traded by Wall Street are products of the State. Those "smart, innovative people" who "invent, market and distribute material blessings" didn't become wealthy through the free activity of the market, undistorted by State intervention and manipulation: they relied heavily on the State to build their "entrepreneurial" empires, to limit their liability, to supply them with raw materials looted from their own or other countries at prices below the market value, to prevent their workers from organizing to protect their own interests, to build and maintain the roads on which they "distribute" their goods, to clean up their garbage, to subsidize them through direct purchase when innovative products are too expensive for the market, and to bail them out when, having become 'too big to fail', they fail anyway. They expect all these benefits, but don't expect to pay for them through taxation, any more than they want to pay the workers who do the real production.

There's another irony implicit in his formulation about "the whole population" to whom those smart, innovative people "distribute" their "material blessings." You'd almost think that the whole population simply waits passively for the distribution, but Rockwell gives the game away when he refers to "the productive labor of the overwhelming majority." Steve Jobs, it had to be pointed out repeatedly in the gush of eulogies after his death, never produced anything: he was a manager and a marketer, and contrary to Rockwell, marketing is not productive labor. The US has a glut of managers and supervisors, especially since the 1970s when their numbers began to skyrocket. This was partly a ploy by top management to cut labor costs by turning as many employees as possible into low-level management who need not be paid overtime for extra work, and were paid much less than their counterparts in the upper echelons where the rewards were concentrated; it's also a result of top management's getting the power to set their own pay schedules, leading to the obscene compensation levels that we see today.

Rockwell is also silent about the intimate relations between corporate elites and the State, not just the buying and selling of legislators and the executive branch through campaign donations, but the revolving-door phenomenon where former legislators, vice-presidents, cabinet members and others shuttle back and forth between the private and supposedly public sectors. This year's Wall Street CEO is next year's Cabinet Member, for example, and this year's undersecretary is next year's lobbyist.

[P.S. November 3. Here's a recent example: The "commodities and derivatives brokerage house MF Global filed one of the largest bankruptcies in American corporate history — with almost $40 billion in liabilities. It was the largest failure on Wall Street since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. The chairman and chief executive officer of MF Global is Jon Corzine, a former New Jersey governor and U.S. senator. Corzine is also the former CEO of Goldman Sachs." To speak, as Rockwell does, of State elites as if they were distinct from corporate elites indicates either fundamental ignorance or strategic dishonesty.]

[P.S. November 25: The Corporate State's revolving door scatters its beneficiaries around the world.]

No doubt Rockwell would explain this away as the work of the State, but it's also the work of those smart, inventive people he lionizes. The Founders and Framers of the American Republic were largely big businessmen and lawyers in their service, after all. Honest Abe Lincoln was a lawyer for the railroads. And so on, through the oil companies to big industry to electronics and microchips and auto manufacturers and the nuclear power industry: Capital and the State have always fed on and supported each other.
Even in the area of money and banking, it is the state that created and sustains the Fed and the dollar, because it forcibly limits competition in money and banking, preventing people from making gold or silver money, or innovating in other ways. And in some ways, this is the most dreadful intervention of all, because it allows the state to destroy our money on a whim.
I don't pretend to understand money or banking, but they are a lot more complicated than this. The crash of 2008 involved deregulated banks and financial institutions going wild with "innovating" instruments for the production of money out of nothing. The Austrian school of economics of which Ludwig von Mises was an exemplar saw crashes as inconveniences, and perhaps Rockwell would have preferred to let Wall Street (all those smart, innovative people!) fail. I don't have a firm opinion on that either, but if it had happened then it would have been Wall Street which destroyed our money on a whim. "Competition" is probably just as harmful in money and banking as it is in other areas of human society; the crash of 2008 is evidence in favor of that guess, and I think only a few people would want to follow Rockwell there.
The state is everybody's enemy. Why don't the protesters get this? Because they are victims of propaganda by the state, doled out in public schools, that attempts to blame all human suffering on private parties and free enterprise. They do not comprehend that the real enemy is the institution that brainwashes them to think the way they do.
They are right that society is rife with conflicts, and that the contest is wildly lopsided. It is indeed the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. They're just wrong about the identity of the enemy.
A few points about this, Rockwell's conclusion. First, a good many members of OWS and more of its supporters are anarchists; they already reject the State, and recognize that Wall Street and the corporate sector are part of it -- which puts them ahead of Rockwell and RWA1. Second, I wonder when "public schools" attempted "to blame all human suffering on private parties and free enterprise." Maybe the curriculum has changed since the 1950s and 1960s when I attended public schools, though I doubt it, but I was well drilled in the virtues of private parties and property, and of free enterprise, as well as the greatness of America and the evils of Collectivism. Probably not ideologically pure enough to suit Rockwell and his ilk, but the lessons he demands are those which I had to unlearn.

But speaking of anarchists -- Rockwell's rant reminds me of a lot of what I read from them online. They speak of the State the way many atheists speak of Religion, as though it were some malignant autonomous invader from outer space instead of a human invention. Anarchists of the Left and the Right too often talk like fish fulminating against the ocean, as though the remedy were t0 (in effect) drain away the water, forgetting that this would leave them too, gasping and dying in the exposed muck.

I once asked in comments somewhere if the anarchist society they imagined was something like the ending of Robert Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold: a post-nuclear-holocaust trading post run by an armed nuclear family, whose sign warns approaching customers "Ring Bell. Wait. Advance with your Hands Up. Stay on path, avoid mines. We lost three customers last week. We can't afford to lose YOU. No sales tax." I was assured not, but I remain unconvinced. There are too many apocalyptic fantasies of Revolution out there in the left blogosphere, especially among nerdboys, which feature oceans of blood, blowing shit up and automatic weapons fire, with rulers and "kneelers" brought down in an orgy of destruction. I think they imagine self-reliant hackers building their revolutionary computers out of scraps and discards, without thinking too much about where those scraps and discards come from. These are sexual fantasies, not political ones.

Without the State, it's unlikely we'd have our computers, the Internet, our blogs -- certainly not in the forms we're familiar with -- or any number of other social products that even anarchists take for granted. (It's arguable that writing itself emerged in, and was a product of, early State societies.) Sure, we could keep them after we smash the State, but where would we plug them in? Batteries require a complicated industrial base to produce, if they're not going to be luxury toys for an elite. I have no clear idea of what a non-coercive non-State society would look like, and neither as far as I can tell do other anarchists. Whatever it would be like, it's not going to arise organically out of nothing. (One advantage to being a weirdo is that I have no illusion that I'd fit into a communitarian pre-State hunter-gatherer society, which wouldn't be non-coercive either.) The One Percent aren't like a tumor that can be excised neatly with no aftereffects on the body politic, any more than the State can be drained away without killing the fish, namely us. I'm interested in figuring out how to get from where we are to a just society without doing unnecessary damage to the ninety-nine percent, or even the one percent. I don't suppose it will be easy.