I’ve been watching the Republican and Democratic conventions and there’s life in these parties yet, particularly the exuberant opening night of the Democratic convention. Is it reallly true that American politics are being destroyed by money and power, as an English woman in the South of France just facebooked me ? The money and power, the one percent, seem to be mainly behind Romney and the multiethnic lower and middle class, the 99%, behind Obama.
Another friend, who manages a huge corporate commercial real estate portfolio in New York City but is a fantastic guy, he totally gets it, he’s a compassionate capitalist, not sociopathic in the least like some of his position and we’ve become buddies this year, has been telling me ominously, that the one thing the empires of the past have in common is that when one percent of their populations had everything, that was the end of them. This is certainly true of Tsarist Russia, my people were the one percent. I am one of the last surviving full-blooded descendants of the old Russian nobility, so I am keenly aware of this. It wasn’t right, so it had to go. The British Empire was over by l960, yet a third of the land in Great Britain still belongs to a tiny group, the hereditary aristocracy, and the French aristocracy, despite the French revolution, is still largely in place. America, my buddy maintains, is not really a democracy, it’s a meritocracy. The successful, the ones with the energy and drive and ambition and ruthlessness, rise to the top and corner the resources. This is true of any society, not just freemarket democracies, but even communist societies like the USSR, whose party elete reaped the bennies, and now post-communist Russia with its enormously rich oligarchs who have absconded with almost everything. And China with its bao fahu, its “suddenly wealthy,” nouveaux riches one percent who are buying the ivory that is driving the slaughter of 100 elephants a day in Africa. So let’s put the growing wealth gulf in the U.S. in perspective. This one percent thing is global, and its cuts across ideological divides. It is a natural consequence of the desire of many people to acquire money and power. But not everybody gets to live in the penthouse, as J. Paul Ghetty said. So there’s a rigorous process of competition, a process of social Darwinist selection, which the freemarket capitalists say is a good thing, because it produces the greatest progress and the best products. I’ve just been reading Clinton Rossiter’s l960 Conservatism in America. One of the core beliefs of conservatism, he maintains, is that people are not equal, and their motives are flawed. If there is a way to get an edge on the competition, most people will take it. Look at the steroid use in professional sports, which is a paradigm for the lines that have been crossed in other aspects of our society like the business world with its ponzi schemes and other scams. Are money and power– greed in a word– destroying our republic, the world, and us ? The constantly growing body of evidence suggests yes. They have brought us to a critical moment in human history when a new system of governance, a more compassionate and inclusive way of doing business on and with the planet, is desperately needed. That is what all these spontaneous demonstrations all over the world are clamoring for. It’s not just the U.S. or even the developed world that needs to be changed.The entire human presence has to be reinvented. We are at a moment like the one that created the American meritocratic democracy, which I happen to have been studying for a forthcoming piece in Vanity Fair. What is interesting is that the founding fathers all hated each other. Washington hated Jefferson who hated Adams who hated Hamilton and yet they managed to pull together what is still probably the most enlightened system of governance yet. One of their wisest moves was to set up check and balances against church and state and the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. But they didn’t set up any checks against runaway capitalism, because they wanted to built a thriving American economy, even though Hamilton was well aware of what could happen. “When avarice takes to the fore in a state, that is the forerunner of its fall,” he observed. This is what has happened. Avarice has taken to the fore. There is a small part of the population that has most of the wealth, much more than they need, and it isn’t enough for them. They want more. This is a disorder comparable to the obesity epidemic and it is no longer an individual problem, but a societal one, a pandemic if you will. To have power, to do anything in today’s world, you have to have money.
So is the solution to do away with money, the main thing that is destroying the world ? That was already tried. The problem was that the moneyless communist societies became totalitarian dictatorships. There were no checks against a monster taking power. And so 60 million Russians were killed by the government of the people in the 75 years of its existence. But why do communist societies have to become police states ? If checks were put in place to prevent opportunistic sociopaths from riding the system to power, like lenin and putin, local selfgovernment (communes) in which the need for money is minimized (grow your own food, produce yr own energy, and barter) could work. But the differences in individual talent drive and motivation have to be recognized. The individual can’t be stymied, because geniuses have to be able to arise at the time we need them, like now. Hamilton– read Ron Chernow’s 700-page biography of the man– was such a genius. It should be doable. but getting everybody on board is another thing.
The first step is to start a new party whose mission is to formulate and implement this new system of governance. A third party is also useful because it leavens the polarization between the red and the blues that has made american politics almost dysfunctional, it adds water to the heady wine of partisanship. n Quebec, for instance, there is a third party called the CAQ that just won 16 seats in the “national” (still provincial, in fact, and we hope it stays that way) assembly. It will serve, with the 49 seats the liberal party won, to reign in the extremism of the Partie Quebecois, which won 50 seats and the premiership. So if nothing else, a third party in the U.S. would be a salubrious addition to the American discourse for the same reason.
Another positive step would be to limit the presidency to a single six-year term. This would encourage the president to go for it and try to realize his vision, not to hold back and prevaricate and calculate and flip-flop for the purposes of re-election.