by Jerome Grapel…….
For a chicken soup philosopher like myself, one who breathes in all the stimuli around him — the politics, trends, the Beyonces and Lebrons, the Oscars, presidents, divas, movers, shakers, the technological hypnotism that has us so enthralled, the ebbs and flows of who’s in charge, how it’s going down and the whole paella-goulash-punch bowl we live in — woo! It gets complicated, overwhelming, does anyone have an aspirin?
This essay, at least from a socio-political aspect, will try to restore order by encapsulating where this writer feels we are (for himself as much as the rest of you) as he sits here in Spain in the month of May in the year 2015, trying to clear away the gnarled and tangled underbrush of human history so as to make sense of it all.
A daunting task.
Let’s get WWII out of the way and start this story from the reconstruction of its ruins. As for the Communist experiment, other than to say it was a hiccup in history our species is either not ready for or not emotionally suited for, we’ll cast it aside and go from there. What do we see?
The fault line our socio-political debate now sits over has been narrowed down to the role of government as opposed to the private sector. This is really just another way of saying how should the vast amounts of wealth our society creates (and that is capitalism’s strong point) be administered?
If any silver lining can be found in the wreckage left by the barbarism of the greatest bellicose action humans have ever degraded themselves with, it was the chance to wipe the slate clean and start over. Slowly, stubbornly, step by step, a more highly evolved form of socio-economic fraternity began to form as these physically destroyed societies began to rise from the ashes. It was a system that began to be referred to as “The State of Social Well Being”, and, in its essence, it tried to fuse the best features of antagonistic concepts — capitalism and communism — into a less in bred, more mongrelized, stronger, more diverse bloodline of human interaction. It was a system where the government, acting as the representative of its citizens’ “well being” (what a Utopian thought!), began to play a more active role in directing where the immense amounts of wealth created in the market driven private sector came to rest. Listen up! It was not an attempt to shackle the private sector, which would still be the cornerstone and foundation of society, as well as its most glorified element. It was no more than an attempt to better distribute this wealth in accordance with each participant’s role in the game, and, as a healthy bi-product, further strengthen the capitalist system. It was an attempt to fill in the holes left by an unleashed market that left too many of its constituents struggling in undignified economic situations. It was an attempt to wrest away some of the spectacular sums of money that were languishing away at the top of the economic pyramid, and put it to work for the common good.
And guess what? For the most part, it worked. Such things as pension stewardship, universal health care, unemployment protection, sick leave, wage floorings, housing subsidies, maternity leave, educational opportunity, job skill training, and other accoutrements of this more highly evolved form of capitalism, began to take root on the landscape of human endeavor. Without getting into any esoteric debates as to where our industrial, technologically complex, consumer societies are leading us (of course, this writer, Post Consumer Man, blames the consumption not the complex technology for whatever disasters lie ahead), a strong case can be made for saying the “State of Social Well Being” is the most successful form of human organization the planet has ever known. It has provided a reasonably dignified existence, both materially and emotionally, to a greater part of the populace than anything seen before. A logical bi-product of this is an increased level of social mobility. I’d also venture to say it was the primary artifice in beating back the Communist challenge, whose glorified workers lived in inferior conditions compared to their counterparts in the west. Its success made it the accepted form of governmental, economic, and social theory for, I’d say, a generation or more.
And now for the bad news.
Like any other socio-political concept that takes over and roots itself in power for long periods of time, it begins to get sloppy. It gets lazy. It stops doing the hard work. It begins to lose its vigor, its muscle tone, its concentration, its desire, it becomes over weight and sluggish. It loses its hunger to get better and maintain its cutting edge. The State of Social Well Being got too comfortable with itself. It became a couch potato. Stagnation and static behavior are enemies of proper function. If you stop evolving, if you stop responding to the constant, always in motion flux of life, you end up being a brontosaurus in a museum.
The State of Social Well Being, instead of being that helping hand for the victims of capitalism, had morphed into a way of life. This manifested itself in a number of ways. It got careless with the public money it was entrusted, not being as efficient with it as it should be. Both the politicians at the top of the food chain and many recipients at the bottom learned how to work the system for their own selfish reasons. Corruption in the political class became endemic in some places (Spain is a poster child for this) with huge sums of public money somehow finding its way into private pockets.
But it’s not as bad as it sounds.
All entrenched institutions of any kind, be they private or public, always need to be renewed and reinvigorated from time to time. What has happened to The State of Social Well Being is an almost normal kind of decadence that has been seized upon by the most plutocratic elements of private sector mega-wealth in a self serving attempt to bring it down.
The Czars of private enterprise have never been fond of The State of Social Well Being. For one thing, the social safety net it creates costs money, and although we all help pay for it in many different ways, those with the most wealth will generally be called upon to do some heavy lifting. And yet, this burden has never been such that the incentive to make money and invest in the creativity of capitalism has been blunted. In fact, you don’t have to be Adam Smith to realize a secure, well paid, emotionally solvent work force is good for all elements of society, even those at the top of the economic ladder. For years I used to scratch my head and wonder why the plutocrats were so antagonized by this form of capitalism.
Sometimes I’m kind of slow, but I finally figured it out in an Arquimedes-like “eureka” moment.
Couldn’t you just hear them while they sipped cocktails in their private jets: “just think of the gazillions we could make if we could turn these publically administered functions into our own private businesses — wow!” It is not the cost of The State of Social Well Being that bothers the plutocrats; it is the governmental supervision this societal model subjects them to. If their Dr. Evil-like plans to take over the world were to reach fruition (cue the sardonic laughter), this kind of economic refereeing had to be done away with. As fate would have it — “eureka” — they found an economic ideology rattling around out there they could use as a smokescreen for their self interest.
Enter, stage right, Milton Friedman and “supply side” economics. “Supply side” is kind of like a religion and its Jesus is the “market”. Like water flowing downhill, it will always find the right course to take. Just leave the market alone — don’t regulate it, don’t referee it, don’t tax it. “Jesus” will show us the way. The market knows how much to pay its workers, how much to charge its customers, how much (little) taxes to pay, how much pollution to make, how big or small its enterprises should be, how to finance itself, who to hire or not, the market! Goddamn, the market even knows who can hit a curve ball.
And the plutocrats thought (cue Austin Powers), “yeah baby!” Now we have a respectable, intellectual, quasi-scientific justification for our self serving subterfuges (that’s as far as I’ll go with the “science” of economics).
I’d say the first trained monkey they put out there to sell this point of view was Margaret Thatcher, and she kicked some ass. The U.K. was one of the pioneers and finest practitioners of The State of Social Well Being. It did an excellent job of letting the bulk of its inhabitants in on the nation’s wealth, much of which can still be seen today. But Thatcher took power at a time when this system was beginning to suffer the inertia described above. And she pounded away at it as only she could. She pounded away —
Ironically, she turned out to be just a tasty appetizer. Thatcher was effective, but she was also somewhat frightening and unlikeable. Waiting in the wings in the world’s most relevant country was her protégé, the “Gipper” himself, Ronald Reagan. Ronnie became supply side’s Marvel Comic super hero. Jesus (the market) now had its Apostil, a likeable clod who sold his snake oil with a smile and a fraternal slap on the back. He changed the game. He became the stud for a whole stable of soap opera intellects like Sarah Palin, who learned to embellish their discourse with the refined idea of “free markets”.
Regardless of the horrible 3rd world wars being waged in places most responsible for fueling the consumer society; regardless of the sporadic acts of terrorism that are simply appendages of this same conflict, the real battles for the fate of humanity are being waged in the skyscraper-board rooms and the halls of government scattered around the globe. We all know what the skyscrapers stand for. The question is — do we want our governments to be the representatives of “them” or “us”.
If we want the latter, the “supply side” offensive — which has been quite successful since the appearance of Margaret Thatcher — must be beaten back. Its track record is abysmal. It seems to do little more than funnel more and more wealth towards the top of the economic hierarchy. It creates both substantial amounts of wealth and poverty at the same time. If it continues to be an important player on the world scene, it is because those who most benefit from it have the resources to impose it with “their” governments and their Big Media propaganda mechanisms.
The State of Social Well Being, on the other hand, has shown it can be effective. It has improved the human condition. The fact that it has functioned, at times, inefficiently, inconsistently, or not up to its optimal level, is no reason to abandon it. Such struggles are not that unusual in any large undertaking. The task before us is to work on it, perfect it and grow with it. It must be monitored and administered properly, a challenge, like any challenge, that cannot reach perfection but can arrive to a point where the idea itself can accomplish its mission.
So that is where we are in 2015. The most relevant debate of our times is centered over these 2 different forms of capitalism: one that is an ideological myth that serves the interests of the least people, opposed by an idea that has already shown its positive possibilities, one requiring a level of good intention that seems to be within the capabilities of human beings — if we work on it.
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