Saturday, October 8, 2011

Paul Ryan - As Wrong as Ever!

In Friday's Wall Street Journal (Books section) Paul Ryan, he of the Medicare death plan makeover and the foolish "Path to Prosperity" (which depends on giving the rich $ 4 trillion more in tax breaks, while gutting health spending for everyone) is at it again - this time ranting about Jeffrey Sachs new book: The Price Of Civilization.

Sachs' book- in a way- is nothing new in its jeremiad against runaway corporate capitalism (which Ryan confuses with a genuine free enterprise system) but it perhaps has more economic details than most. For readers new to this field, and others interested, I recommend a few others first, namely: 'America Beseiged' by Michael Paenti, 'Opposing the System' by Charles Reich, and more recently 'Dark Ages America' and 'The Twilight of American Culture' by Morris Berman.

Each book in its own way, along with Sachs', deals with the painful and tragic loss of "mindfulness" of a people and society consumed by their own material consumption and allowing a lowest common denominator market "ethic"to dictate norms, behaviors, and priorities. While Plato, Aristotle and Jefferson enjoined their followers and fellows to seek to maximize or improve their minds to approach the world, crass capitalist commercialists and PR-marketers abhor that because it makes it less likely people will graft and pine for their products. As we know, and as Lenin discussed at length('Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism'), the core of the destruction of any capitalist states inheres in limits on consumption. Since that state exists solely to produce products and ....mainly crap at needs an inexhaustible supply of consumption units (i.e. "consumers") to prevent inventories from growing too large. It also needs such units to prop up GDP.

Note that in Lenin's parlance, "imperialism" didn't refer to force of military might as by an "imperialist nation". It meant the use of finance capital and preferably, global finance capital, to intrude, intervene and insinuate itself into other weaker nations to subdue them. A secondary purpose was to convert their own peoples into dedicated consumers as well - as opposed to "citizens" - because ultimately a nation state would exhaust its own supply of consumers and needed to expand.

Now, in the current context, we know that multi-national corporations - such as Monsanto, have accrued so much global finance capital that they are more formidable in power than many nation states. (See, e.g. One World Ready Or Not - The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism, by William Greider, Simon & Schuster, 1996. ) In this case, it possesses the power to actually offset a smaller nation's liberties and convert it into a kind of production satellite, say to make shoes, or GMO foods.

But I digress.

Perhaps the most aggressive position on the infringement of capital and consumption was Berman's 2nd book, in which he noted how - because of over-consumption, most Americans lived in a "bubble divorced from reality and take their truths directly from an untrustworthy government or corporate media allied with them", rather than finding it out by their own research and independent thinking. In other words, exactly the opposite of what Jefferson regarded to be the basis of the citizen.

Berman also noted another, more depressing aspect that arose from wanton consumption and allowing one's mind to degenerate from PR and over-exposure to ads: e.g. that graciousness, tolerance and humanity may no longer even be possible in a nation so committed to "getting the most toys" that (in the words of Nicholas von Hoffman) it became rife with a collection of “asses, dolts and blockheads.”

Similarly, French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau deplored the fact that people in a commercially -oriented society were "scheming, violent, greedy, ambitious, servile and knavish".

Berman, like Reich, and Parenti traced these characteristics directly to the nature of the capitalist hyper-consumption state itself. (Berman, in his superb book The Twilight of American Culture, notes that once the remaining social insurance programs are eviscerated - the U.S. will cease to be a beacon of liberty, and will descend to merely another third -world type country. With a tiny rentier population living nicely while 98% suffer and barely make it from day to day.)

There are two primary deleterious effects at work:

i) the incessant crass commercialism of everything - yielding a lowest common denominator culture and "minds" to match it.

ii) A continuing enhancement in inequality - with ever fewer slices of 'pie' for the lowest 80% while the top twenty percent gorges itself on 94% of the resources.

This sets up de facto economic warfare amongst all groups in the lower echelons, pitting one against the other for the few scraps that remain. As Charles Reich poignantly notes in his book, Opposing the System, , p. 103:

"When society itself comes to be modeled on economic and organizational principles, all of the forces that bind people together are torn apart in the struggle for survival. Community is destroyed because we are no longer 'in this together' because everyone is a threat to everyone else. "

The capitalist driven “rupture” can occur as quickly as when your neighbor builds a large recreational pool, or puts in a hot tub, and you can’t afford one. Or when he makes a great home improvement add-on while you are left to humble by with the status quo. Most humans in American greed culture, then develop an unhealthy desire for what Joe Smith next door has, and by contrast, what he lacks. Hence the development of a knavish persona if even by accident.

But Paul Ryan in his takedown of Sachs' own book, isn't having any of this theory which treats consumerism as unmindfulness. According to Ryan:

"Only through a re-shaping of our principles and a re-ordering of our economy does Mr. Sachs believe we can become a mindful society. We must abandon a culture defined by hard work and the striving for upward mobility and an economy that has unleashed unparalleled prosperity"

But, of course, Ryan counts none of the costs - social, environmental or economic (massive inequality) that accrue from this "prosperity". He counts none of the 80,000 carcinogenic chemicals that have been released into the environment, for example - and are used to make our great products - such as the plastics embedded with phthalates and bisphenol and our herbicides loaded with atrazine. Chemicals that can do everything from cause cancers, to mild retardation to disrupting meiosis and interfering with sexual characteristics.

So yeah, we are prosperous all right, at a fearful price! Most of which many can't afford to pay when they receive the news they have cancer of the bladder, pancreas, breast or prostate.

As for "abndoning a culture of hard work" - none of the anti-capitalist writers, including Sachs, make that claim. What they're saying is we mustn't get ourselves on a work-spend treadmill whereby we must work ourselves sick and crazy to keep up with the Joneses' and their new jacuzzis and sundecks! We must take time from work and not allow it to become a fetish at the expense of improving our minds, as citizens.

But what have we beheld? People are no longer even referred to as citizens, but as "consumers". So we're all reduced to the level of grazing cattle, as one marketer put it.

Another canard exposed in Ryan's rant:

"The book's veneer of economic analysis cannot conceal what is essentially a crusade against the free enterprise ethic of our republic"

Which is total horse shit. In fact, "free enterprise" has basically vanished along with most street cars.

Academics Maxine Baca-Zinn and D. Stanley Eitzen observe (In Conflict and Order., p. 343) that more accurately:

"The American economy is no longer based on competition among more or less equal private capitalists. It is now dominated by huge corporations that, contrary to classical economic theory, control demand rather than being responsive to the demands of the market."

A perfect example of this was the news reported in USA Today, March 23, 1999, that three major Oil Producing companies banded together to limit production. This was done explicitly to force an increase in oil prices, by artificially limiting supply. If these companies were truly responsive to the 'demands of the market' they would allow consumers to continue to purchase and use current oil supplies until they began to dwindle, then raise prices.

Obviously then, Ryan doesn't know what the hell he's yapping about.

Another hidden aspect - that belies the free market myth- is the special subsidies and government support given to corporations - i.e. for their advertising overseas, not bestowed on private entrepreneurs. This government largesse goes by the name "corporate welfare."

In the end, and when all things are considered, Jeffrey Sachs is quite correct that the price of civilization - based on hyper-capitalist "creative destruction" and mind-numbing consumption for its own sake, is far too high - for us all.

We may learn that lesson too late, but one hopes with the 'Occupy Wall Street' impetus, more attention will at least be paid to the trade-offs people make between work and life.

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