Liberals have been neutered by capitalism. Once upon a time, they spoke of Malefactors of Great Wealth. They said that these morally bankrupt jackals were ruining people’s lives. Nowadays, liberals just don’t talk like that. They begin any conversation about money by saying that they don’t begrudge the rich their wealth, they just want minor tweaks. It isn’t working.
As Chris Hedges argues, there was an alternative not so long ago:
The left once harbored militant anarchist and communist labor unions, an independent, alternative press, social movements and politicians not tethered to corporate benefactors. But its disappearance, the result of long witch hunts for communists, post-industrialization and the silencing of those who did not sign on for the utopian vision of globalization, means that there is no counterforce to halt our slide into corporate neofeudalism.
I remember the push against the commies. I wrote an essay in high school on Masters of Deceit by J. Edgar Hoover. I was quite proud of it until I showed it to a Dutch priest theologian who was a friend of my family. He explained gently that there was more to say about radicals than perhaps I could be expected to know as a young American.
There is a grain of truth in the notion that we don’t begrudge rich people their wealth. Robert Frank divides the wealthy into three groups in his book Richistan, Lower Richistan, with net worths of $1-10 million, Middle Richistan, with net worths of $10-100 million, and Upper Richistan, with net worths in excess of $100 million. Many of the people in Lower Richistan earned their wealth through merit and hard work. They are, by and large, the millionaire next door. They worked hard and played by the rules and saved and invested, and made it to the lower reaches of wealth. If this were what liberals meant when they said they don’t begrudge the rich their money, I would wholeheartedly agree. This differential in rewards seems perfectly consistent with the ideas of John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. And few of them are doing damage to the nation. They don’t have enough money.
Middle Richistan has about 1.4 million residents. Many of them use their wealth to encourage the stupid theories of the crazed right wing. We catch glimpses of them when they convene in secret to listen to Romney complain that 47% of their fellow citizens are leeches.
Upper Richistan has several thousand inhabitants, including several hundred billionaires. Many of them are actively engaged in destroying our way of life. We know the names of some of these people, Koch, Walton, Adelson, Peterson, Romney, and Paulson. We know that they hide their contributions to candidates, we know they are indifferent to the non-citizens of Richistan, and we know they will spend as much money as it takes to impose their will on the nation.
It is stupid to agree that we don’t care about their wealth or how they got it. I say that not one of them is morbidly wealthy because of their personal merit. Instead, they ride us like Rafalca, making us dance to a tune of their choosing, taking advantage of every system and institution we established to promote the general welfare, and shamelessly demanding favorable laws and freedom from law enforcement. Not one of them contributes to society nearly what they take from us.
Are we better off because Walmart crushes small retail and manufacturing businesses around the nation and treats its employees like rented mules? Or because Exxon manipulates discourse on climate change? Or because the rich thugs at Goldman Sachs work with John Paulson to rip off investors for billions of dollars in deals like ABACUS? Or because George Soros brought the British Pound to its knees? Or because Mitt Romney sent jobs to India and China? Or because Sheldon Adelson encourages gambling around the world? Or because Peter Peterson preaches the death of Social Security and Medicare? Or because of anything either of the Koch brothers have ever done?
Oh, but Citizens United, that obscene decision from the political hacks on the Supreme Court, says this is just fine and doesn’t suggest corruption. It’s just like their equally insane NRA-approved Second Amendment case: we pay the price in unnecessary deaths and ruined lives.
How are we supposed to protect ourselves from the oligarchs?