The New Ruling Class

So William Jefferson, the man with the fine cold brick of cash in his freezer, is off to jail. This is a step in the right direction, but only a step. There are plenty of others in need of the same treatment: Christopher Dodd, Harry Reid, and Charles Rangel, just to note the most well-known. Dodd has interesting financial connections with a number of Connecticut finance companies. Reid has serious real estate problems that may be connected to Da Boys back in Vegas. Rangel's activities are so complex as to baffle even experienced experts in financial crime (who have been forced to call in a mixed crew of Jesuits, Talmudic scholars, and quantum physicists to help sort it out). In a just world, all three would be headed for the same cell block as Jefferson. Yet they're not only free and walking around, but they're also wielding power on a national scale. It can be said with little exaggeration that they (along with their unindicted co-conspirator, Barney Frank) are in large part responsible for the crash leading to our current economic predicament. Each of them is now diligently working to make it worse.

Through all the necessary focus on our Dear Leader, we often forget that the problem isn't simply Obama, or the Congress, or even the Democratic Party as a whole. The problem is liberalism -- what it is, and what it may become.

We seem to be edging into a new form of aristocracy, with the noble, egalitarian liberals leading the way. This is a shadow aristocracy, lacking many of the hereditary and legal aspects of the European variety, but an aristocracy all the same: a limited-entry oligarchy with privileges denied the rest of the populace. If we look around at the world of the third millennium, it is hard to deny this as the default state of human society. Russia, China, Latin America, Central Africa -- a society that fails to adapt a civilized system of government devolves into some form of aristocratic rule. Europe too appears to be going in that direction, with a privileged bureaucratic class holding unlimited power over the countries comprising the European Union. Is the United States far behind?

This country was founded in opposition to that kind of rule. The 18th-century British aristocracy was one of the most arrogant, selfish, and corrupt in the historical record. It was the epoch of the Hellfire Club, of Lord Sandwich and his twenty-four-hour gambling binges, of rotten boroughs and bought-and-paid-for military commissions. Over the previous century, the Enclosure Acts -- by which the nobility seized public lands and locked them up for their own purposes -- had broken the ancient bond between the yeomanry and the rulers. While the aristocracy created huge private estates dotted with country houses the size of palaces, tens of thousands starved as their agricultural livelihoods vanished behind the new fencing. Others made their way to the cities to suffer chronic unemployment and take part in a crime wave perhaps not equaled by that of the U.S. in the late 20th century. England, which dodged the worst aspects of feudalism, appeared to be deteriorating into an even fouler state. The flavor can be gained by a view of Peter Greenaway's film The Draughtman's Contract, which deals with an early-18th-century architectural draftsman hired by an aristocratic family for the purpose of covering up a murder.  

In a real sense, our War of Independence was a direct revolt against this class, which sought to gouge the colonies as they had Britain's rural population. All the same, many of the Founders, including John Adams and Fisher Ames, supported the establishment of an American aristocracy, based to some extent on that of Britain, on the grounds that only by this means could social stability be maintained. But the American "yeomanry" -- that is, nine-tenths of the country -- weren't having any. A 1992 study by Gordon S. Wood called The Radicalism of the American Revolution convincingly demonstrates that the Revolution went much farther than anyone involved intended: The new Americans, taking the rhetoric of freedom and equality quite seriously, forced an unforeseen and unmatched social revolution during the last decades of the 18th century. In the process, they created the country that we know today. (Wood's book is not as widely known as it should be, due in large part, I think, to its unfortunate title, which gives the impression that it's one of those 60s New Left deals with Washington as Mao, Jefferson as Trotsky, and the revolution remaining "incomplete" until the appearance of such brave figures as William Ayers. It isn't.)

Since the founding, numerous pseudo-aristocracies have come and gone in this country -- the Southern plantation owners, the robber barons, the WASP ascendancy, and so forth. While they may have played the role, none of them quite matched the European aristocracy, which was a closed system kept in place by legal sanction and force. Have we in the new millennium progressed beyond such a possibility, or could such a system arise now?

What we're seeing today is a growing symbiosis between politicians and the upper levels of business, particularly the grotesquely overpaid CEOs of the financial sector. We have the not-uncommon situation of sitting politicians being purchased or rented, as may well have occurred with Dodd and Rangel. (What did the financial chieftains get in return? Recall that much of the bailout and stimulus money was aimed precisely at these figures, who have spent the past year handing it back and forth to each other, with scarcely a dime making its way into the general economy. This is why the markets are booming in tandem with rising unemployment and stagnant growth.)

But we're also seeing a new phenomenon: business figures with fortunes in the hundreds of millions (if not billions) moving into politics in a big way. Consider Jon Corzine, who made a king's ransom at Goldman Sachs (which reportedly pushed him out of the firm) before moving on to become governor of New Jersey. Consider George Soros, international financial buccaneer of dark antecedents who has set himself the apparent goal of transforming Western politics. Consider (a slight reversal, but still pertinent) Al Gore, well on his way to becoming the first Green billionaire, Gaia be praised.

Fortunately, these types have proven to be more hat than cattle. Corzine was even worse at governing than he was at working the financial markets, and he is unlikely to further his political career. Soros is another one whose reputation has outrun his achievements -- after all, his latest protégé is failing to live up to expectations. As for Al, while little doubt exists that he wouldn't mind spending a couple hundred million righting the injustice of the 2000 election, there's no reason to believe that any but the most liberal voters would flip the switch for such an international joke.

But suppose somebody with serious intelligence, dynamism, ruthlessness, and vast sums of money were to attempt the same type of maneuver? And suppose it wasn't limited to one individual, but several such figures jockeying for control of the country? We've already had a taste of what this might mean with the Kennedy family. Old Joe parleyed his bootlegger fortune into the creation of one of the most squalid and inglorious dynasties in American political history. (The Kennedys. An American Drama, by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, tells that story more than adequately.) Imagine how much worse it would have been if the family had enjoyed access to even larger amounts of money.

The long run offers an even darker prospect. Within a few years, with advances in stem-cell treatments and synthetic biology, the wealthy may well be able to purchase extended lifespans. This is one of the greatest privileges imaginable, and one that may be gained by some of society's most unworthy individuals. Imagine an unaging Corzine or Soros, then picture a society run by such types: a political-financial aristocracy consisting of people well into their second centuries, capable of rewarding loyal followers with more years of life, who own the government, run their cities and regions as personal fiefdoms, and protect themselves with private armies of "bodyguards"...in sum, a Philip K. Dick version of 18th-century Britain.

How do we prevent such an outcome? By utilizing every democratic tool that we possess. Tie them all -- politicians and financiers both -- down with as many laws and regulations as necessary. Keep them under the microscope, watch them constantly, allow them to get away with nothing. Assure that the lines are clearly drawn and nail anyone who crosses them from either direction. Bury the malefactors in federal prisons "to encourage the others." Treat them the way that William Jefferson was treated, and announce the results far and wide. We can start with the trio mentioned above. Human nature being what it is, there will be no lack of others.

And while we're at it, we can overthrow liberalism, the major carrier of the aristocratic impulse in our epoch. But that will require a little more thought.
So William Jefferson, the man with the fine cold brick of cash in his freezer, is off to jail. This is a step in the right direction, but only a step. There are plenty of others in need of the same treatment: Christopher Dodd, Harry Reid, and Charles Rangel, just to note the most well-known. Dodd has interesting financial connections with a number of Connecticut finance companies. Reid has serious real estate problems that may be connected to Da Boys back in Vegas. Rangel's activities are so complex as to baffle even experienced experts in financial crime (who have been forced to call in a mixed crew of Jesuits, Talmudic scholars, and quantum physicists to help sort it out). In a just world, all three would be headed for the same cell block as Jefferson. Yet they're not only free and walking around, but they're also wielding power on a national scale. It can be said with little exaggeration that they (along with their unindicted co-conspirator, Barney Frank) are in large part responsible for the crash leading to our current economic predicament. Each of them is now diligently working to make it worse.

Through all the necessary focus on our Dear Leader, we often forget that the problem isn't simply Obama, or the Congress, or even the Democratic Party as a whole. The problem is liberalism -- what it is, and what it may become.

We seem to be edging into a new form of aristocracy, with the noble, egalitarian liberals leading the way. This is a shadow aristocracy, lacking many of the hereditary and legal aspects of the European variety, but an aristocracy all the same: a limited-entry oligarchy with privileges denied the rest of the populace. If we look around at the world of the third millennium, it is hard to deny this as the default state of human society. Russia, China, Latin America, Central Africa -- a society that fails to adapt a civilized system of government devolves into some form of aristocratic rule. Europe too appears to be going in that direction, with a privileged bureaucratic class holding unlimited power over the countries comprising the European Union. Is the United States far behind?

This country was founded in opposition to that kind of rule. The 18th-century British aristocracy was one of the most arrogant, selfish, and corrupt in the historical record. It was the epoch of the Hellfire Club, of Lord Sandwich and his twenty-four-hour gambling binges, of rotten boroughs and bought-and-paid-for military commissions. Over the previous century, the Enclosure Acts -- by which the nobility seized public lands and locked them up for their own purposes -- had broken the ancient bond between the yeomanry and the rulers. While the aristocracy created huge private estates dotted with country houses the size of palaces, tens of thousands starved as their agricultural livelihoods vanished behind the new fencing. Others made their way to the cities to suffer chronic unemployment and take part in a crime wave perhaps not equaled by that of the U.S. in the late 20th century. England, which dodged the worst aspects of feudalism, appeared to be deteriorating into an even fouler state. The flavor can be gained by a view of Peter Greenaway's film The Draughtman's Contract, which deals with an early-18th-century architectural draftsman hired by an aristocratic family for the purpose of covering up a murder.  

In a real sense, our War of Independence was a direct revolt against this class, which sought to gouge the colonies as they had Britain's rural population. All the same, many of the Founders, including John Adams and Fisher Ames, supported the establishment of an American aristocracy, based to some extent on that of Britain, on the grounds that only by this means could social stability be maintained. But the American "yeomanry" -- that is, nine-tenths of the country -- weren't having any. A 1992 study by Gordon S. Wood called The Radicalism of the American Revolution convincingly demonstrates that the Revolution went much farther than anyone involved intended: The new Americans, taking the rhetoric of freedom and equality quite seriously, forced an unforeseen and unmatched social revolution during the last decades of the 18th century. In the process, they created the country that we know today. (Wood's book is not as widely known as it should be, due in large part, I think, to its unfortunate title, which gives the impression that it's one of those 60s New Left deals with Washington as Mao, Jefferson as Trotsky, and the revolution remaining "incomplete" until the appearance of such brave figures as William Ayers. It isn't.)

Since the founding, numerous pseudo-aristocracies have come and gone in this country -- the Southern plantation owners, the robber barons, the WASP ascendancy, and so forth. While they may have played the role, none of them quite matched the European aristocracy, which was a closed system kept in place by legal sanction and force. Have we in the new millennium progressed beyond such a possibility, or could such a system arise now?

What we're seeing today is a growing symbiosis between politicians and the upper levels of business, particularly the grotesquely overpaid CEOs of the financial sector. We have the not-uncommon situation of sitting politicians being purchased or rented, as may well have occurred with Dodd and Rangel. (What did the financial chieftains get in return? Recall that much of the bailout and stimulus money was aimed precisely at these figures, who have spent the past year handing it back and forth to each other, with scarcely a dime making its way into the general economy. This is why the markets are booming in tandem with rising unemployment and stagnant growth.)

But we're also seeing a new phenomenon: business figures with fortunes in the hundreds of millions (if not billions) moving into politics in a big way. Consider Jon Corzine, who made a king's ransom at Goldman Sachs (which reportedly pushed him out of the firm) before moving on to become governor of New Jersey. Consider George Soros, international financial buccaneer of dark antecedents who has set himself the apparent goal of transforming Western politics. Consider (a slight reversal, but still pertinent) Al Gore, well on his way to becoming the first Green billionaire, Gaia be praised.

Fortunately, these types have proven to be more hat than cattle. Corzine was even worse at governing than he was at working the financial markets, and he is unlikely to further his political career. Soros is another one whose reputation has outrun his achievements -- after all, his latest protégé is failing to live up to expectations. As for Al, while little doubt exists that he wouldn't mind spending a couple hundred million righting the injustice of the 2000 election, there's no reason to believe that any but the most liberal voters would flip the switch for such an international joke.

But suppose somebody with serious intelligence, dynamism, ruthlessness, and vast sums of money were to attempt the same type of maneuver? And suppose it wasn't limited to one individual, but several such figures jockeying for control of the country? We've already had a taste of what this might mean with the Kennedy family. Old Joe parleyed his bootlegger fortune into the creation of one of the most squalid and inglorious dynasties in American political history. (The Kennedys. An American Drama, by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, tells that story more than adequately.) Imagine how much worse it would have been if the family had enjoyed access to even larger amounts of money.

The long run offers an even darker prospect. Within a few years, with advances in stem-cell treatments and synthetic biology, the wealthy may well be able to purchase extended lifespans. This is one of the greatest privileges imaginable, and one that may be gained by some of society's most unworthy individuals. Imagine an unaging Corzine or Soros, then picture a society run by such types: a political-financial aristocracy consisting of people well into their second centuries, capable of rewarding loyal followers with more years of life, who own the government, run their cities and regions as personal fiefdoms, and protect themselves with private armies of "bodyguards"...in sum, a Philip K. Dick version of 18th-century Britain.

How do we prevent such an outcome? By utilizing every democratic tool that we possess. Tie them all -- politicians and financiers both -- down with as many laws and regulations as necessary. Keep them under the microscope, watch them constantly, allow them to get away with nothing. Assure that the lines are clearly drawn and nail anyone who crosses them from either direction. Bury the malefactors in federal prisons "to encourage the others." Treat them the way that William Jefferson was treated, and announce the results far and wide. We can start with the trio mentioned above. Human nature being what it is, there will be no lack of others.

And while we're at it, we can overthrow liberalism, the major carrier of the aristocratic impulse in our epoch. But that will require a little more thought.

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