[Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Global Imperial Plutocratic/Kleptocratic Brave New Fantasyworld of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump]
BY SCOTT DEWEY – As long as humans worship the trappings and display of power and wealth—as with celebrity, political power, military power, economic power—and they obviously do—there can be no democracy; democracy cannot survive. When societies reach the level of urbanization and concentration to allow centralization and concentration of power and the polarization of power—as they always do if allowed to—the people will start to worship that power, and the chosen few who are allowed to hold that power, as gods, and will happily sacrifice their liberty, freedom, and democracy to become lackeys to that power, jockeying for minor advances in position relative to other lackeys—the human religious capacity meets primate pecking-order politics and undoes equality, justice, and democracy.
All societies are actually theocracies, because all of them require a quasi- (or not even quasi-) religious worship of the power structure—and as with all religions and theocracies, this worship must be unquestioning (mindless, faithful, the replacement of (inherently questioning, skeptical) human reason and rationality with intense emotional attachment and religious devotion). In our new global imperial plutocracy, we actually worship celebrities and billionaires, however wicked or worthless they may be from the standpoint of objective reason. It is this religious worship of the power structure that ever allowed the pharoahs, Alexander the Great, or the various Roman emperors/empresses to declare themselves to be gods; objective reason of course would not, could not allow that.
Objective reason also would not allow the mindless worship of Kim Kardashian, or Donald Trump, or Mick Jagger, or Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates. Outsiders can look into a society different from theirs and see the absurdity of it, as Bobbie Burns (a free-thinking, liberty-minded Scot resentful of English claims to power over Scotland) could look at the English king, look through the trappings of power, and observe (famously), “A man’s a man, for a’ that.” Similarly, European explorers, colonists, and business or diplomatic envoys could look more objectively at the emperors of China or Japan, or of the Incas or Aztecs, or countless other such situations around the world, and see mere mortals—but they (mostly) could not do so regarding their own power structures that their own societies, by an unstated but massive and irresistible cultural hydraulic pressure, required them to (mindlessly) worship.
Enlightenment-era democratic philosophers and theorists tried to get around this by shifting society’s worship to focus on the (supposedly) democratic or republican institutions themselves—so rather than worshipping a king or queen or emperor, democratic citizens were supposed to worship institutions, like Congress, or concepts, like “liberty” and “democracy.” But humans (with perhaps the exception of a few strange academicians) cannot worship ethereal theories, concepts, or institutions (conceptually conceived); they worship concrete things, and concrete symbols of what they are supposed to be worshipping only conceptually (hence the eternal recurrence of icons and idolatry; hence the countless oversized posters of third-world dictators; hence kissing the Bible; hence pledging allegiance to the flag; hence pilgrimages to Rome, or Mecca, or Washington, DC, or to the Supreme Court building). And to the extent that societal worship is nominally shifted from individuals and concrete objects to institutions, that is only a matter of appearances rather than actuality, because the society will come to worship the masters, gatekeepers, and keyholders of those institutions who control the actual power of those institutions or put a (concrete) human face on those institutions. So nominal worship of the U.S. Constitution, for instance, converts to hero worship of the Supreme Court justices, or at least of those with whom the worshipper agrees politically. Said justices may be, and traditionally have been, relatively able and intelligent, certainly above average, but are also at best mere mortals with human foibles and political opinions and blindspots—yet they are worshipped like gods. The cult of the American presidency—and the eclipsing of the legislative branch by the executive branch, contrary to the Framers’ intentions—can largely be explained by the way the presidency puts a single human face on both the institution of the presidency and the whole federal government (and its vast power), in effect creating a new emperor and elevating him to godlike status. The many-faced Congress is less able to do that, and the same dynamic was no doubt problematic for the Roman Senate in resisting Julius Caesar. At any rate, in each case, the nominal worship of/devotion to a “democratic” institution devolves into the worship of human figureheads for power who are not really worshipped because they represent democratic institutions, but because they represent concentrated power, a humanized, concretized symbol of power.
[Even though the president does not actually hold and command all that power personally or individually, which is impossible; actual power is held in varying measures by the insiders clustered around the president who claim to act in his name and in the name of the federal power he represents—rather like high-level insiders within the Vatican or any other theocratic, imperial, or dictatorial entourage throughout history.]
This all has to do with why democracy can sort of work, sometimes, on a smaller scale, for instance at the village level (say, traditional Native American tribes or African villages in which the village elders who held higher rank and respect held such status based upon life records of achievement and accomplishment known to the rest of the community, and did not represent vastly concentrated, polarized power that other villagers (or other elders) could not challenge or resist), or better in small (and legendarily happy!) Denmark than in large Germany or the United States. All growth in a society (demographic, economic, industrial, military, whatever sort) gradually moves toward concentration of power, and concentration of power, which inevitably also means the polarization of power within a society (power cannot be both concentrated and held equally), leads inexorably toward empire and (de facto) theocracy.
[Here it should be noted: Trump’s “new federalism” actually represents nothing but the continued concentration of power by those who actually hold power in modern American society—the corporate plutocracy. The more centralized, powerful United States federal government of the twentieth century arose as a counterweight to the amassed might of corporate power that took control of American society and Americans’ lives from the second half of the nineteenth century onward, and against the excesses of which American state governments on the whole proved feeble and ineffectual. Efforts to dismantle the federal regulatory apparatus, and to “re-federalize” and devolve power to state governments, thus represent not a de-concentration and de-polarization of power, but actually only a vast re-concentration of power and a shameless move toward a pure and unmitigated global corporate plutocracy. [Or kleptocracy, if you prefer?] We can anticipate yet another classic, entirely predictable “race to the bottom” in terms of state government policies and citizens’ quality of life as states, overall, and over time, compete with each other to give corporations whatever they want at the expense of their people—even more than they’ve been doing for the past several decades. [I.e., even if it doesn’t happen overnight, check back in ten years or so and see how things have changed.] The stock markets’ insane, irrationally exuberant recent spike upward at the prospect of the wholesale ditching of any controls on the plutocratic juggernaut, and of any meaningful protections of individual workers’ and citizens lives or of human dignity in general, is a whole lot like the Slytherins’ exuberant celebration of their anticipated impending victory in the last of the Harry Potter novels. The unbridled market has showed its true colors, and it’s all about power, not justice, fairness, or basic decency. The American market enthusiastically looks forward to being just as unrestrained a kleptocracy as Vladimir Putin’s Russia.]
Yet empires do of course collapse. As with stock market bubbles, even if they rise comparatively rapidly, they usually fall much faster—they crash. They don’t build down rationally; they are mostly incapable of it. Rather, they will sacrifice everything to preserve the illusion of their power and grandeur to the very last—power and grandeur which was, in the end, only the stuff of illusion, hero-worship, and quasi-religious devotion from the outset, practiced mindlessly on a large scale. [Jared Diamond’s description of the Easter Islanders’ denuding of their island to create more big stone heads, rather than confronting reality, building down, and preserving their island’s life support systems as objective rationality required, classically symbolizes the whole process and the twisted irrational psychology of empire.] Empires collapse when reality finally crashes in and illusions can no longer be maintained, but imperial power structures are geared toward preserving the illusions on which they are founded and, like a religion, are capable of massively resisting objective reality. The whole process of creating an empire, like the elevation of a mere mortal to godhood, represents a denial of objective reality (“A man’s a man, for a’ that”), so empires exist from the outset in a state of denial, the empire ends when the state of denial can no longer be maintained, and it takes some very harsh reality to puncture the mass mind-bubble of that imperial state of denial.
[The classic depiction in American cinema: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! I am the great and powerful Wizard of Oz!” The only difference being that actual exposure of the hollowness of the leadership and the whole apparatus, by itself, will not puncture the bubble for true believers—witness the comeback of the Republican party after what frankly should have been its final debacle in 2008. It takes even more harsh reality than that to puncture an imperial mind-bubble of denial.]
Note: academicians are a rather strange, somewhat silly reflection of all of this. Anyone who spends any time around them is well aware of their mere mortality, human foibles, and feet of clay, yet they also elevate themselves to godlike status at least within their ivory towers and expect to be worshipped by students (which sometimes happens) and by the outside world (which happens less often except with those few academicians who reach the level of wider celebrity and thus can play the same self-marketing games and gain the same quasi-religious devotion as the likes of Kim Kardashian or Donald Trump). In academia, the supposed worship of truth and objective knowledge devolves into the hero worship of those few anointed figureheads who become the human faces and mouthpieces for those ideas that the imperial power structure wants to hear about itself—thus, they trade in mere rhetoric masquerading as objective truth that is accorded quasi-religious worship on the basis of its supposedly being objective truth. Far from having innate power in themselves, ideas only have power to the extent that they are politically popular—objective truth could sit on the shelf forever, entirely powerless, if nobody is buying it. And the figureheads who spout the politically popular ideas du jour are not worshipped for their ideas (which might not be understood anyway), but for the aura of power that the political popularity of those ideas creates. Ideas and their mouthpieces gain power to the extent that everybody is mindlessly babbling about them. And we can look back historically and see plenty of cases where formerly unstoppable intellectual bandwagons are now discredited, as with social Darwinism and scientific racism—but we never see it happening around us. Just like people can look back on stock market bubbles and see what happened, but go ahead and reenact it all over again. Just like present-day empires can look back on earlier empires without recognizing their own hollowness. Quasi-religious faith and devotion derails objective rationality every time, on the group level if not the individual level.
History is like the traveller in Shelley’s “Ozymandias”—no, Ozy: you really weren’t so great or eternal after all. That was all just a temporary dream—just another vain imperial mind-bubble of denial.
And now, for people still struggling with their cultural literacy:
Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
A Man’s A Man For A’ That
Robert Burns, 1795
(originally a song set to music)
Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.
Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.