"There are three great awful truths which must be kept carefully hidden from the population. If we know what they are and accept the consequences of them, and know how to use them, our use of them gives us a tool by which we can maintain control of the masses."
Leo Strauss And His Three Great Awful Truths
In the early part of the 20th Century, a young college student in Germany came under the sway of Carl Schmidt, who served in various professorial posts in German universities before becoming the political advisor to Adolf Hitler. The young protoge was Leo Strauss, who absorbed much of what the Nazi theoretician had to say, particularly with regards to the ineffectiveness of democracy and uselessness and corruption of democratic institutions, and why governance by a powerful, even dictatorial executive is so superior a form of government. Schmidt was the primary political influence on Adolf Hitler and guided much, if not most of Hitler's political program. And so impressed was Schmidt with his young protoge, that he eventually arranged for him to become an adjunct professor at the University of Chicago (Strauss' biographers routinely claim that Strauss was a Jewish refugee, escaping Nazi tyranny - a claim that is patently false), where he taught other subjects for many years while writing on the subject of political theory, and organizing a coterie of carefully selected and highly political students, whose political philosophy as guided by Strauss, has become known as "Neo-conservatism." As evidence of just how successful Strauss was in poisoning the minds of his young protoges, many of those students have gone on to become high officials in the administration of George W. Bush, Jr. Familiar names, such as John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz, David Wurmser, Richard Perle and several other members of the Bush administration were part of this group. A few others that were never brought into the Bush administration have become quite influential while remaining outside it. Two of the most influential are William Kristol and Norm Podhoretz. The influence if this group has proven to be remarkably enduring, in spite of the fact that their political theories, when actually tried out in the real world, have uniformly proven to be complete and utter disasters (they were the architects of the Iraq war, and the most recent Israeli invasion of Lebanon, for example). Other high administration officials, such as vice president Dick Cheney, were never part of Strauss' coterie, but have been highly influenced by its members. And so if the "Unitary Executive" theory of Dick Cheney and the Neo-conservatives bears a striking resemblance to the political theory of the Nazis, and the inquisitorial nature of the Bush II administration has more than a passing resemblance to the repressive fascism of Hitler's governmental machinery, that is hardly an accident. That a Bush family member, as president of the United States, would adopt such philosophy of government, and associate himself with such people, is hardly a surprise either, given the fact that the Bush family has been closely associated with fascists and Nazis for more than a century. For example, Junior's grandfather, Prescott Bush, a Republican U.S. senator at the time who made his fortune laundering money for the Nazis, had even participated in a fascist coup plot against the U.S. government in the 1930's - a plot that nearly succeeded and was the subject of a recent BBC documentary. But I digress...
Leo Strauss went on to write several books about his political theories, the best known of which is "Natural Right And History" - the bible of the Neo-conservative movement. In it, Strauss argued that for the elites to maintain control of The Great Unwashed, it was very helpful to understand, use, and keep carefully hidden from the masses, "three great awful truths" that are so awful that the masses are simply unprepared to accept them, and if they ever did, it would quickly lead to chaos and anarchy. But by understanding them and using them against the masses, the great awful truths offered a powerful tool by which the elites could maintain control, while keeping a lid on the filthy, primitive and repugnant common man, and thereby prevent the nihilism and anarchy that would surely follow. He also argued that philosophy should not be "prostituted" by being put to the service of the common man, either.
That such a smarmy political theory would have a great deal of resonance for a group of young, impressionable students, is hardly a surprise, given that Strauss carefully and very selectively admitted into his coterie only those students who he figured would be receptive to his message - students who would consider themselves to be intellectually superior to the great mass of the population and who were deeply disaffected with liberal-establishment politics in dealing with the results of the Great Crash, and what they considered to be other failures of liberalism. So it was no surprise, then, that his philosophies were eagerly adopted by the "privileged" inner coterie, nearly all of them ended up being liberal Jewish students who had become disillusioned with the liberal Jewish establishment's Zionist failures in Palestine and what they considered to be the failure of liberalism itself, especially gentile secular liberalism, and were looking for an alternative. Strauss ensured that they found it in his fascist ideas, though of course, he was careful to never actually call his philosophy by any name that would reveal its close philosophical association with the obviously cruel right-wing tyranny of National Socialism (Nazism).
The Three Great Awful Truths Of Leo Strauss
To his coterie, and in his magnum opus, "Natural Right And History," Strauss argued essentially that the masses are simply incapable of governing themselves through democratic processes, and therefore the governing has to be done for them by a superior elite - but such is the powerful cachet of democracy, that the fact that the masses are not being empowered to govern their own affairs has to be carefully concealed from them, and they had to be kept powerless, but ignorant of their powerlessness. The process of doing that, Strauss argued, meant that certain tools must be employed, and one of the most powerful of these tools was the employment of the three great awful truths.
The first great awful truth of Leo Strauss, one with which many of his conservative followers have had trouble coming to grips, is that there is no god to reward righteousness and punish evil. I am not going to delve into theological arguments with believers on this point (I have my arguments and they are made elsewhere on this site); I would only to suggest that what believers believe is not based on hard, verifiable, irrefutable evidence, but at the end of the day, only on the desire to believe. Strauss' arguments make a very valid point here, in that if a god really does exist, there is no meaningful, much less compelling evidence whatever that one can point to that suggests that a cosmic cop is indeed anywhere on the beat, much less that he is sending wrongdoers to a cosmic jail or rewarding nice folks with a great palace and seventy froliking virgins or whatever. That most religions routinely claim there is such a cosmic cop, is a useful means of control by both the religionists themselves and by the elite - by influencing or occasionally even controlling the political message of religious leaders, the political elite can control the masses by sending the message that while one may suffer bitterly in this life, there is a better life to come, and the sufferer will earn that better life by bearing up under the tyranny and oppression of this life with patience and servility. This is the message that political leaders have exploited religions to communicate for them since time immemorial - it is why the peaceful, pastoral and bucolic scenes portrayed in early Christian art (Jesus walking on the water, feeding the five thousand, etc.) were quickly replaced by Christ on the cross and terrible scenes of suffering and death as a condition of mortal existence with a better life to come - a change that happened almost immediately when the Roman emperor Constantine assumed control of the political message of the Catholic church upon his "conversion" in the fourth century.
That so many believers believe is evidence of just how compelling is the religious message, as the result of this truth indeed being so awful. One of the reasons that the majority of people find this great awful truth so hard to accept, and religious belief therefore so appealing, is that there is so much injustice in the world that is crying out in vain for resolution. In the face of all that evil, it is very comforting to believe that in the end, it will all work out, and that somehow, justice, like electric charge or angular momentum, is a conserved quantum in the universe, and hence, the evil-doer will get his punishment by burning in hell forever and the do-gooder will get his reward in the end, froliking in his mansion with his seventy virgins or some such. But the hard evidence, to the extent that it exists, shows that the whole concept of justice is a purely human contrivance that has no meaning whatever in the natural world. Eat or be eaten, kill or be killed - the law of the jungle, as it is called - is convincing evidence that one should not look to the natural world for examples of a priority of moral justice in this life, nor is there any reliable, verifiable evidence of an afterlife in which justice finally happens. The evidence is simply not there to be found.
Our reaction to this as humans, what this ultimately means to us as mortal flesh forced to contend with the law of the jungle, is that we should understand that it is up to us to formulate concepts and theories of justice that seem to work for us, and execute justice at our own hands, because no one, cosmic cop or otherwise, is going to do it for us. We must bear up to this responsibility, and not look to ancient religious books for theories of justice written by tribal religionists thousands of years ago in cultures very different from our own, but rather do some hard soul-searching to decide for ourselves what is right, what is wrong, what is fair and what is unfair, and what is just and unjust, helpful and unhelpful in promoting a fair, equitable and humane society. And to the extent that we leave it to others to bear this responsibility, we leave it to others to govern our lives as they see fit, not as we would like to be governed. Hence, if we abdicate this responsibility by remaining in denial about this great awful truth, we abdicate our right to complain if those others create rules for us which we find intolerable. And this, of course, is the point that the Neo-conservatives and their fellow travelers are quick to exploit.
In other words, the lesson for us in all of this is that at the end of the day, there are no cosmic brownie points to be earned by allowing ourselves to become subservient to oppressive political or religious theories of justice. How we should react, of course, is to chart our own moral course on the basis of how we consider ourselves to be best able to contribute to the welfare of society while promoting our own well-being. And if that means not doing the bidding of a ruling elite, so be it. I am sure that Strauss' followers will be disappointed, annoyed or even angered, but just whose life is your life, anyway? Yours or theirs?
Strauss' second great awful truth is that no man's patria is better than anyone else's. This simply means that no matter how much one wishes to think otherwise, no religion, no country, no family history, no tribe is any better than any other at the end of the day. We are all in the same boat together and were given the same oars to paddle, like it or not.
The consequences of this are huge. It means that no one is better than anyone else simply because he is an American, or a Christian, or a Rockefeller. You may be proud of your family history, or your country, or your church, or your ethnicity, but at the end of they day, are any of those really any better than anyone else's? No. So why fight and even be willing to die on behalf of the ruling elites in your country, when they are no better than the ruling elites of the country with which your country is at war? Why proselytize on behalf of a religion which is itself nothing more than a means of imposing values on someone else, values which, at the end of the day, are no better than anyone else's? And why would one be arrogantly proud of a family that too often offers little interest or support if/when you find yourself in need, or whose genealogy is no more proof of superiority than is the genealogy of anyone else? Why fight for a homeland for your ethnic tribe, when it is clearly no better than, nor has any more natural rights than any other ethnicity?
That most all of us do one or more of these things is clear evidence that we have not fully accepted Strauss' second great awful truth. If we did, we would certainly realize that it is not in our interest to do such things, but rather doing so merely serves the interests of others who have little interest in us, and we do so usually at our own expense. To paraphrase Patrick Henry, life really isn't so dear, nor peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery - on behalf of an opinion-leader in our church, tribe, religion, or political system. By convincing us that we should fight for our country, or our religion, or our tribe, we are, at the end of the day, being convinced to fight for the elites, and doing so is almost always against our own self interest. From a political standpoint, of course, acceptance of this truth simply means telling the elite that you are not going to accept their authority unquestioningly and do their bidding, unless they have something serious to offer in recompense, and that means something more than just simply allowing us to keep barely enough of the wealth we produce that we do not feel compelled to incite rebellion.
The third great awful truth of Leo Strauss, is that expediency works. It is a simple, cold hard reality, that in the vast majority of cases, when a robber robs a liquor store, he makes a clean getaway and ends up a bit richer for the crime, a fact of which everyone is aware. It therefore should hardly be a surprise that when the chief executive officer of a major corporation sees that his fellow CEOs can hand-pick members of the board who will reward him with a huge salary and a very golden parachute, so it should hardly be a surprise when he does it, at the expense of the actual legal owners of the corporation, the shareholders.
That expediency works is something every teenager learns early on. He soon discovers that he can invite his friends over to party when his parents are away, and as long as nothing gets broken, he can usually get away with it. Or he can drive the family car without permission, as long as his parents don't find out. So we all learn that expediency works. But we really want to believe that it doesn't, that crime really doesn't pay when we all know that far too often it does, that behaving in your own self interest at the expense of others frequently does leave one better off for the experience.
So why do we stop at a traffic light when there are no cars coming in the other direction, and no cops to be seen? Why do we voluntarily report income on our income tax returns when there is no way that the tax authorities could find out had we not reported it? Why do we return someone's lost wallet with his money still in it? This is a question that has been investigated by social scientists since serious social science began. And study after study has pointed to the same answer - it is not fear of the consequences of disobeying the rules, either moral precepts or actual laws, it is our own self-image as law-abiding citizens and contributing members of society that keep us on the straight and narrow. And that, of course, is as it should be. At the end of the day, that is the only thing (certainly not fear of punishment) that keeps civil society civil.
But the ruling elites, especially those in the Straussian mold know that they can serve their own self interest usually without consequence, and, because they know there is no cop, cosmic or real, to stop them, they are quite prepared to use expediency against us and use it freely, while trying to convince us that the wages of breaking the law and fighting against their rule are either certain incarceration in this life or punishment by the cosmic cop in the next.
If they cannot do this, and if they are sufficiently ruthless, they will simply resort to private retribution as is known all too well by the victims of political repression (including myself). So it should hardly come as a surprise when the expedient Jewish neo-conservative students of Leo Strauss, pursuing their tribalism, have become ardent supporters of Israel and have endlessly propagandized the American people into supporting Israel unquestioningly, regardless of the wholesale violations of the most basic human rights of Palestinians that Israel so routinely commits that it doesn't even make the news. And it is why these same people have deftly exploited George W. Bush's religious fundamentalism to steer the U.S. into the disastrous war in Iraq (and now hope to do so again in Iran) on behalf of what they believe to be the security interests of Israel. Strauss' students are relentlessly pursuing what they see as their self interest because they know and accept that expediency works, and they see no reason not to employ it. They see no reason to be bound by any kind of moral restraint in the interest of expediency, but are happy to exploit the moral restraints that they would impose on others by keeping them blind to the fact that expediency can work so well and be without consequence to the expedient. Too bad that these Jewish neo-cons refuse to accept the reality of Strauss' second awful truth, and that is that their Jewish patria is no better than that of the Palestinians, and hence that they have no moral right to do what they are doing, and that what they are doing is an example of the naked nihilism that Strauss himself claimed to deplore. The same can be said of the neo-conservative business elites who routinely consider it their right to put expediency over the moral consequences of Strauss' second awful truth, and use expediency to exploit the relatively powerless workers who produce their wealth, depriving them of it simply because they can, or spew the pollution from their factories into the public commons for others to clean up, simply because they can.
The consequences to us, as a society, are profound, of course, and the moral dilemmas that it poses are challenging indeed. One of the correlaries to this truth is Lord Acton's famous dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is very true, and when the Straussians impose upon us their "natural right" to rule unchallenged, it bears with it the temptation to use expediency in a corrupt and very self-serving manner. And this is, of course, how tyranny is born - it is why Nazi Germany became such a repressive state, and why the United States and many other nations are going down the same path. So we, as the governed, have to challenge the tyranny by challenging the power - something that the elites obviously do not want us to do. To check the corruption that their power always breeds in them, our only effective tools are transparency (especially a Fourth Estate worthy of the name) and unrelenting political activism. And those are two tools of which the Straussians specifically seek to deprive us, so they can rule unchallenged. It is why the Bush II administration has made such an effort to stifle dissent - so they can use expediency on their own behalf while depriving us of it.
For us personally, the consequences of this mean that we should recognize and accept this truth, but not indulge in the venal nihilism that it invites, even though the elites may engage in such moral nihilism themselves. Doing so will be contrary to the interests of society as a whole, which, at the end of the day, are our interests as well. But by understanding and recognizing this truth, we are better able to recognize when ruling elites use it against us, and call them to account for it. This is especially true with regards to the rule of law and observance of constitutional restraints. When George W. Bush, engaged in the self-serving nihilism of his own, says (as he did before a congressional delegation in the Oval Office one day) that the "constitution is just a piece of paper," that nihilistic use of expediency is clear proof that he is unfit for public office, much less the presidency. And his resignation or impeachment should be demanded for that act alone, if not for his many other impeachable offenses.
Strauss Was Right, But He Very Conveniently Forgot Two Other Great Awful Truths
There is little doubt that Leo Strauss was right in his analysis of the great awful truths, at least as far as he went. But he seems to have overlooked two other great awful truths, both of which, when their consequences are fully considered, completely undermine the validity and usefulness of his political theories.
The first of these overlooked great awful truths, is that the only difference between the supposedly superior ruling elites and the bums sleeping on the skid-row sidewalks, is circumstance, education and opportunity. On this point, scientific evidence is unequivocal. Hundreds, even thousands of scientific studies, looking at the "nature versus nurture" question from hundreds of different perspectives, have proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that it's almost entirely down to nurture - the only significant difference between the two population groups, are, as stated, a consequence of differences in circumstance, education and opportunity.
The consequence, for right-wing political theory is very serious indeed. While the right-wingers pay lip-service to the concept of equality by asserting that we are all equal because we are all equally born naked, standing on the bare ground, and therefore the differences in our circumstances later in life must be down to the consequences of decisions we make subsequent to our birth, this is quite clearly not the case. It is quite obviously ludicrous to claim, as the right-wingers do in that assertion, that at the end of the day, a Rockefeller baby, born naked, standing on the neatly landscaped and carefully manicured bare ground of a Rockefeller estate, is somehow equal in opportunity to a baby born to a jobless rubbish sorter, standing naked on the junk and broken-glass-strewn bare ground of a rubbish tip in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Yet, right-wing political theory, as advocated by Strauss' students and now many others (including quite notably, Ronald Reagan), assert that they simply are. But I fail to understand how the right-winger would reasonably assert the physical differences between the two babies which are the obvious consequence of differences in maternal pre-natal nutrition and health care, but would claim instead that they are somehow the responsibility of the baby itself through decisions it has supposedly made. Of course right-wingers resolutely refuse to accept the moral consequences of their patently absurd assertion.
The moral consequence, of course, is that it is moral responsibility of the empowered, acting through government, to extend sufficient opportunities to the jobless mother sorting trash in the rubbish tip in Tegucigalpa, to lift herself and her child out of poverty, even if it is at the expense of fewer opportunities for the Rockefeller baby than it would otherwise have. This is because the Rockefeller baby will have far more opportunities provided to it effortlessly by devoted and well-resourced parents, something the jobless mother cannot do. For the empowered to do anything less is to shirk a moral responsibility that is the direct consequence of Strauss' second awful truth - no man's patria is better than anyone else's. Do I advocate confiscating the property of the Rockefellers to simply hand it to the trash-sorting mother? No. Of course not. But there are many things we as a society can do, including tax policies as well as carefully considered and managed social programs that should less favor wealth concentration by the rich, and be more supportive of social services and programs designed specifically to create opportunities for the poor to lift themselves out of poverty. It is one thing to tell someone that they should lift themselves out of poverty by their own bootstraps, but quite another to accept the moral consequences of the cold, hard reality that the poor usually, far more often than not, in fact have not done so as a consequence of not having any bootstraps by which to do any lifting.
As an example of what can reasonably be done, and in my opinion should be done, was the "Healthy Start" initiative tried out a number of years ago by the State of Hawaii. It was observed by hospital workers and social workers in that state that it was not uncommon for infants born at their hospitals to be readmitted weeks or months later, bearing signs of child abuse and neglect. They got together and formulated a plan to deal with this problem. When maternity-ward nurses would observe a lack of interest, unconcern or hostility to the mother by the father, or a situation in which the mother had no family or husband for support or the mother herself was distracted by her personal situation, social workers would be called in to help the mother and, if present, the father, deal with their personal situations and get the help they needed to raise the child properly. If necessary, jobs were found for unemployed fathers and day care for single working mothers. This plan was presented to the state legislature, and was approved. It was funded at a cost of $3 million per year to the taxpayers of the State of Hawaii. It proved to be brilliantly successful - no only did incidents of hospital admission of infants for child abuse drop dramatically, but the police even reported a significant, noticeable drop in the number of both violent and economic criminal offenses as soon as three months after the program got underway. Savings in terms of crime prevention alone far exceeded the program's cost, and the prevention of the economic consequences of crippling injuries to children sustained during child abuse incidents alone far more than paid for the program. But, as would be expected of a right-wing ruling elite determined to maintain a servant class to serve their own interests, the next governor of Hawaii, a Republican, vetoed funding for Healthy Start claiming it was a "wasteful social program." The result was that the situation for infants in Hawaii quickly reverted back to what it had been before. Healthy Start is an example, among many, of what can be done, easily, reasonably and cost-effectively to improve the circumstance side of the fourth awful truth equation - if the right wing itself would simply accept that awful truth and its moral consequences for their theories.
The second condition, after circumstance, is education. And again, the Straussians and other right-wingers play an increasingly obstructionist role, because they see an empowered middle or lower class as being a threat to their control, and a threat to their ownership of a servant class. Their attitude and mindset is best summed up by the former dictator of Nicaragua, Anastosio Somoza, who when being given a tour of a Costa Rican school in a poor village in that country, remarked, "I don't need educated mules." That is how the elite, in their elitism, regard us, the lower classes - as their mules. Effectively, as being property to be exploited. So why should they educate us? Since they are in complete denial about the moral consequences of the fourth great awful truth, it is unlikely that they will ever see the moral imperative to do so, and given their acceptance of and willingness to exploit the third awful truth - that expediency works - they will view it as against their self interest to allow the middle and lower classes to be fully and rigorously educated. More on that later at the end of this essay.
The third condition that must be overcome to empower the poor to enable them to lift themselves out of poverty, is opportunity. And again, it is the right wing that plays an obstructive role. Their moral reasoning is that it is not their responsibility to provide opportunities to the poor at their own expense, when no one else is doing so for their own children. Such argument flies in the face of the reality that no one even needs to provide opportunities to the children of the rich for them to be able to succeed, because they already have them as a natural consequence of their circumstance. The rich parent will, as a matter of course, educate their children in the best schools and ensure that their well-connected friends provide job or investment opportunities as needed for their own child's economic success, and can do so with little if any real effort. The child himself, in stark contrast to the infant born on the rubbish tip of Tegucigalpa, need hardly lift a finger to become economically successful and independent in his own right. So no one needs to provide the children of the rich with opportunities as a charitable endeavor in order to empower them - that opportunity already exists for them in abundance as a direct, natural consequence of the wealth - and hence, power - enjoyed by their parents.
So how are we to provide opportunities for the poor and middle-class? First, we need to ensure that educational opportunities, of a serious, rigorous nature, are equally and freely available to all, regardless of economic circumstance. That means that state universities need to get back to the business of being open to all qualified students, regardless of their economic circumstances, and that means that state governments need to support them adequately for that specific purpose, whether Republican legislatures like that or not. After that, we need to get back to encouraging the cultural value enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and once held dear by Americans but now being lost, that all men are of equal moral and legal standing before government and society, and deserve at least equal opportunities. Hence, that a job candidate should not be considered for a position simply on the basis of who is a friend of the prospective boss, but on the basis of the candidate's academic record and achievements. We have largely lost that value as a culture in the last thirty years of conservative rule, and the result has been a huge loss of opportunity for the poor to lift themselves out of poverty. We need to give up the trend towards building a plutocracy, and get back to building a meritocracy, rather than just simply playing lip service to that ideal.
The fifth great awful truth, about which Strauss' followers and their fellow travelers, the free-market fundamentalists are in complete and total denial and which directly undermines their economic arguments for unregulated free markets, is the cold hard reality that money equals power, and the unrestrained accumulation and concentration of money therefore equals the unrestrained accumulation and concentration of power - and since power corrupts, concentrated power inevitably leads to concentrated corruption and with it, tyranny.
I am quite certain that Strauss and his fellow travelers, such as the late economist Milton Friedman, were not so stupid that they did not actually understand this, but that they simply chose to ignore it and never teach their students about it, because keeping quiet served their interests and those of the elite. I don't believe, for example, that it is any accident that Friedman never spoke of this problem in his many years of tenure as a professor at the University of Chicago - while being driven around the campus in a chauffered limosine for most of that time. I seriously doubt that there are many other college professors granted such a privilege.
The most direct consequence of this truth is that this is why a "free market" simply cannot remain "free" for very long. Inevitably, in a free and truly unregulated market, someone will accumulate significantly more wealth than his competitors, and this will give him a certain amount of economic leverage that is not enjoyed by his competitors. As it should be, the free marketeers would insist. Competence should be rewarded. But the flip side of that coin is that if our market participant is good enough, he may even gain sufficient leverage to give him the ability to impose rules by which all buying and selling is done - and the market at that point can no longer be called free.
This is why, in spite of free-marketeers' claims that monopolies are inherently unstable and invite competition, that DeBeers Consolidated Mines was able to build and maintain a world-wide monopoly on the production and sale of diamonds for well over a century. It did this by engaging in a lot of unscrupulous, corrupt and unethical business practices that are downright illegal in many nations of the world, and deprived potential competitors of the ability to participate freely in the market. Unstable and inviting competition indeed! DeBeers is a classic example of the fifth great awful truth - that money equals power, and the unrestrained concentration of money equals the unrestrained concentration of power - with all the consequences for corruption and tyranny that entails.
This is why, when the airline industry in the United States was deregulated in the early 1980's, and contrary to all the predictions of the free-marketeers, the result has been less competition - vastly less - not more, as was used to justify de-regulation in the first place. At the time the "big bang," as it was called, actually happened, there were 66 scheduled airlines operating in the United States, and now there are only seven - and two mergers among them are being proposed as this is being written. This situation of course, has huge consequences for both the economy and the political system. When terms of access to the market are dictated by a few players, they accumulate enormous power - not just economic, but political as well. I'd be willing to bet that when the CEO of Delta Airlines now rings up the president of the United States, the president of the United States darned well takes the call. And I would be willing to bet that thirty years ago, when the president of Allegheny Airlines placed a call to the president, he was given an excuse and referred to a bureaucrat instead. Is allowing a corporate CEO of a single corporation to accumulate this kind of political power really a healthy situation?
I don't believe it is. When big business concentrates so much wealth that its concurrent power is inescapable, even the President of the United States is forced to take the call. When the overarching incentive of business is to make as much money and aggregate as much power to itself as it can possibly manage, all other interests, including the public interest - even the stability of democracy itself - become secondary and unimportant, and very often get run over. I cannot believe that such a situation is healthy for the public interest over the long term. Adam Smith, the revered high-god of the "neo-liberal" free-market economists, actually understood this and wrote about the consequences of it in Wealth of Nations (1776), showing why large market players and corporate power had to be severely regulated and tightly constrained before they can aggregate enough power and influence to individually influence market prices or activity. Too bad that the free market fundamentalists who revere the man have never actually read his book. It is my firm conviction that one of the legitimate functions of government is, as Adam Smith said it should be, to curb the abuse of economic and political power by corporate interests, and regulate the consequences, both economic and environmental, of the single-minded pursuit of profit as business seeks to maximize its income while externalizing its costs.
Indeed, accumulating evidence clearly indicates that the concentration of economic power is not healthy for society as a whole. The power accumulated by the Bush family, in its cozying up to the kingpins of big business, has led to a level of corrupt cronyism in the Bush II administration that is without precedent in American history - and a paralyzation of important government functions, as evidenced by the response to the Katrina hurricane disaster. The final result of George Walker Bush Junior cozying up to Kenneth "Kenny Boy" Lay, at the time, the president of Enron Corporation, and allowing his vice president, Dick Cheney, and Kenny Boy to conspire to set energy policy for the United States without public knowledge or input, much less accountability, eventually proved to have cost the people of the United States, particularly electrical rate payers in California, a mighty pretty penny indeed, and certainly didn't end up enriching the stockholders and employees of Enron. So where was the public benefit in all that exercise of corporate economic and political power with its collusion with the coercive power of government?
I would also argue that the fifth great awful truth has another consequence, an economic consequence that is rarely, if ever considered, because the fifth great awful truth itself is so rarely acknowledged and accepted. And that is that this great awful truth imposes an end-point on the whole capitalist project, of a kind not foreseen even by Adam Smith or Karl Marx. When capitalism pushes for "free market" de-regulation in an effort to free itself of governmental restraint of its excesses, it opens the door to the gradually increasing concentration of both wealth and its consequent power - a goal striven for by every capitalist out there. And, over time, a few capitalists will actually achieve that goal. But as power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, the capitalist system with its concentrations of power and wealth, itself becomes corrupt. This leads to two problems which impose an end stage on the capitalist system - first, the inefficiency and lack of innovation caused by corrupt corporate leadership means that the corporate enterprise becomes no longer an engine of wealth creation but merely wealth concentration instead, yet through the economic and political power the large corporate enterprise is able maintain through its voracious concentration of wealth, it is able to stifle more innovative and efficient wealth-generating competition. Second, pulling money out of the pockets of consumers, who are the actual producers of the wealth (by driving down their wages to make them more "flexible" as one so often hears these days), inevitably deprives the corporation and its fellow corporations of their own markets (a reality that Karl Marx actually did forsee). You can't sell something to someone who has no money - and this is the bottom-line reason of why the Third World nations are so poor. Few third-world nations lack the actual wealth and resources they need to create a vibrant economy; but the problem is that the wealth and hence the power they do possess is so excessively concentrated it cannot be utilized effectively to that end, and since the wealthy elites in those countries also control the governments, there is no viable mechanism available to pry it loose.
Hence, the end point of the development of the capitalist system is reached when wealth in an economy becomes so concentrated (and in that way comes to resemble third-world economies) that those who need the money and can use it effectively don't have any, and those who actually have the money have so much of it that they can't begin to use it effectively to generate and sustain the demand for goods and services that makes any economy function. When the concentration of wealth reaches this point, a crash occurs, and the economy collapses. This is precisely the bottom line of what happened in the United States in 1929, Britain in 1900, Holland in 1760, and Spain in 1580, and even the Roman Empire in the first and fifth centuries A.D., and it is about to happen again in the U.S. today. In each case, there was a precipitating event that got the blame, but in reality it was the excessive concentration of wealth that was the underlying problem that created the economic collapse of the capitalist economy. This end stage seems to occur in otherwise stable capitalist economies about every 50-100 years, and when the collapse occurs, it always produces great misery and suffering, leading to a flush of reform (the New Deal banking and securities reforms and business regulation in the case of the last U.S. collapse), which are very slowly but effectively eroded away over time. The official excuse for eroding the reforms is always that the regulations are "outdated" by "new economic realities" as if the fundamental laws of economics had somehow been repealed. Then, with the restrains gone, the capitalist can once again resume his concentration of wealth and power unhindered - with the inevitable end-point collapse in a morass of political and business corruption and widespread human misery once again, as the cycle progresses towards its end and new beginning. The full meaning and consequence of this reality and what can be done about it, is the subject of another essay on this web site.
Your personal reaction to the consequences of this truth should be to prepare for the endpoint of the current cycle, which is clearly getting quite close and without question will be exceedingly ugly when it finally happens. I don't want to sound like a paranoid, camo-clad backwoods survivalist or a bible-banging evangelical apocalypticist, but we are very clearly reaching the end stage of capitalism described above, as is so clearly demonstrated by the serious, even frightening economic instability caused by the sub-prime mortgage crisis (as of this writing), which by itself should never have been more than a blip on the economic radar screen. Paul Craig Roberts and even George Soros are saying the same thing, and they are no far-right, camo-wearing, rifle-toting survivalist types. Roberts is saying that the endpoint has been postponed for so long, and the asset bubble has grown so huge that when the crash finally comes, it will be severe and uncontrollable - and make 1929 look like a simple market correction. He claims it is likely to be the most severe economic crash in world history, and I am inclined to agree, given the scale of the financial industry's speculation - on margin - with other peoples' money (read: yours) that is taking place at the moment. Right now the leverage ratio is about sixteen to one - much worse than was the case in 1929. Soros is saying that the banking and financial system itself is unsustainable and is growing increasingly unstable, and will have to collapse at some point, and he expects that point to be soon. Given such a hugely excessive level of margin investing in increasingly opaque investment vehicles, he is clearly right. When the collapse happens, the economic - and human - consequences of such a failure of the financial industry is going to be ugly indeed. Just ask the people who went through the bank failures in the U.S. in the 1930's, who felt only a foretaste of what is about to come, if Roberts and Soros are right.
So if you can possibly manage it, sell your mortgaged house and your well-watered stocks and bonds as soon as possible and buy a (very humble if necessary) house in which to live that you can pay cash for and own outright - your ability to pay down a mortgage will be severely (and I believe quite deliberately) compromised regardless of whether the endpoint comes as a hyperinflation episode (as happened in the collapse of the capitalist economy in Germany in the early 1920's) or a massive deflation (as happened in the collapse of the capitalist economy in the U.S. in 1929-1932). It will have to be one or the other, and your guess is as good as mine as to the form in which it will occur. But The Mormons are right - keep a year's supply of food and essential supplies on hand - it may take that long to get the economy working again at even a minimal level, and in the meantime, you'll need to be prepared to defend your cache. Yes, I really expect it to be that bad. If you own stocks you wish to keep, get the certificates from your broker and keep them in a safe place (NOT a bank safe deposit box - those were rifled in the last bank crash and doubtless will be again this time). If you own any mutual funds and wish to keep rather than liquidate them, make sure they are closed-end funds, and obtain and keep the share certificates. Open ended funds can be readily looted by a management that sees the end is coming - and that happened on a large scale in the last crash - virtually the only mutual funds that survived the last crash were closed-end funds. Alarmist language, it's true, but the evidence is clear that it is quite likely to become reality when the inevitable endpoint of the current capitalist financial system finally occurs. Just because you haven't experienced it, doesn't mean it isn't going to happen. Listen to your grandparents who went through the bank failures of 1932 and the subsequent Great Depression. They know from their personal experience. If you are a shrewd investor, and have the courage to do so, it is actually possible to even profit from the crash, by securing enough of your own wealth from the effects of the crash in advance to buy up property from distressed owners and sell it later at huge profits when the economy finally recovers.
So, How Do We Deal With The Far Right And The Neo-conservatives?
First and foremost, it is important for us to understand and accept all the five great awful truths, with the full scope of their moral and philosophical consequences, and recognize how the first three are being utilized against us by the elites. Then, second, we must recognize that the fourth and fifth great awful truths are in fact both true and also undermine both the moral and philosophical authority on which the elite assert their "natural right" to rule us unchallenged - and how we, as the governed, can use their own denial about the fourth and fifth great awful truths to challenge their rule.
The first and most fundamental of all human rights, the right upon which all other human rights are wholly and totally dependent, is the right to governance under the full knowledge and consent of the governed. That the ruling elites in the United States, particularly as they are represented by the far-right elements of the Republican Party (as typified by but hardly limited to the Straussian Neo-conservatives), have sneeringly dismissed this right and wholly disregard it, even have contempt for it, is evidence that they are simply not fit to govern, under any circumstance. Full stop. They need to be replaced, and if they continue to try to retain power by means of fraudulent elections (such as happened in Florida in 2000, and Ohio in 2004), then they will need to be replaced by the Jeffersonian Solution if necessary.
So our first task must be to rid ourselves of governance by the far-right Republicans, of course. But that task by itself would be incomplete. We need also to rid ourselves of their allies who conceal themselves in the Democratic Party, including the members of the so-called "Democratic Leadership Council" in the House and Senate who insist on preventing us, the people, from having full access to the levers of power, most especially in the one political party in the United States that historically has represented our interests. They, like the Neo-conservatives, covertly believe that we are unfit to govern ourselves, and that they, through their superiority, therefore have a natural right to govern us. The only difference between the DLC Democrats and the Neo-Conservatives, at the end of the day, is simply their style of governance, not its substance. As evidence of that, I point to the fact that after the change in leadership in Congress in 2006 passed to the DLC Democrats, little actual change was in evidence from how Congress was run under the Republicans, or the policies it pursued. The Democratic Leadership Council is part of the problem, not the solution. Democratic principles demand that any sitting member of it needs to be turned out of office at the next election, and pronto, and no new DLC Democrats ever elected again.
Finally, we have to begin the long, slow, hard slog of preparing the American people to actually govern themselves for the first time in a century and a half. This can only be done by immunizing them against the manipulation by the elites through, among other things, teaching the people about the five great awful truths, and getting the people to understand and accept the full moral and philosophical consequences of each of them. The task will be Herculanian indeed and will take decades. So how can it be done?
We must first face up to the reality that an ignorant, uninvolved populace is in fact quite unable to adequately govern itself, and so we must educate ourselves so that we can come to a rational, reasoned judgment on the issues that face us, and then educate the populace and motivate people to become involved. People who hold to a wide range of ill-considered, unreasoned, irrational ideas, and who are all too often deeply invested in them emotionally, simply cannot come to a reasoned consensus, as true democratic governance requires. Quality consensus can only be arrived at by a population that not only possesses the skills to engage in rational, critical thinking, but actually uses those skills, and uses them habitually and routinely in their day to day lives. Only then will the masses have a defense against the demagoguery and propagandizing by the elites that are being used to control us so effectively at the moment.
In order to learn these skills, and prepare ourselves for the philosophical and moral consequences of accepting the Five Great Awful Truths, we need a rigorous educational system. If there were one educational reform that I could put in place, and only one, rigor would be it. I do not advocate an educational system that rigorously stuffs young minds full of useless facts, but instead one that engages young minds in serious lines of both factual and philosophical inquiry and is rigorous and disciplined about the answers the students produce, and does so relentlessly from day one in the First Grade, right through the end of university studies. By teaching using the Socratic Method, and requiring the students justify their responses and/or produce quality results, young minds are actually opened up to intellectual enquiry, not shut down. Once they adjust to that paradigm, they will soon learn that learning itself can be a lot of fun, and they will gain an enthusiasm for it that the current factory-model of education quite deliberately shuts down in an effort to instill submissiveness and servility to a predigested paradigm.
By being required to face, time after time, through educational rigor, the wholly unsatisfactory consequences of believing what you want to believe instead of what is actually true, young minds will slowly but inevitably work out that it is advantageous to leave behind immature ways of thinking and reasoning, and they will begin to realize for themselves that they do not and cannot have all the best answers automatically. Only rigor can instill the emotional maturity that makes it possible for students to engage routinely in critical thinking without having to experience the cognitive dissonance of being forced to consider ideas at variance with beliefs in which they are emotionally invested. At the end of the day, this is what sets the true academic apart - it is not brainy intelligence as is so often supposed, but in reality it is merely the humility, nearly always learned through experience, of the need to be willing to readily and easily accept the possibility that one can be and often is wrong, and therefore it is less painful to not emotionally invest in a paradigm. Educational rigor can and will teach this to anyone, if given a chance. The cost of not doing so is very high - it is the arrogant and hubristic who are vulnerable to being manipulated by a self-serving ruling elite by simple manipulation of the consensus paradigm propagated by the We-All-Say-It-So-It-Must-Be-True herd mentality, and a population which can reason deeply and think independently and critically and without prejudgment, and does so habitually, is the worst nightmare of an out-of-control ruling elite. It is also a population that forms consensus readily, because the same hard realities soon become evident to and accepted by most everyone, and so the same judgment - and consensus - is the result. This is the secret of how ancient Athens achieved its golden age of a century and a half of stable, effective direct democracy through consensus.
Then there are the consequences of the great awful truths themselves. How do we create a population that understands and accepts them, but does not become dangerously anarchic and hopelessly nihilistic? We do it by teaching, right from First Grade through the end of university, the basic elements and principles of philosophy, so that the student can create for himself a rational, reasoned value system and a philosophy of life that is at the same time in his best interests as well as the best interests of society as a whole. Once this is done on broad segments of the population, it will be possible for us to achieve what ancient Athens achieved - a stable direct democracy, in which the people governed themselves through rational dialogue, achieving reasoned consensus on most issues, in a golden age that lasted a century and a half. What Athens achieved, surely we can do as well or better, having the benefit of subsequent mistakes and learning to guide us. Strauss feared the consequences of the common man having access to the basic principles of philosophy, and that is why he said it should not be "prostituted" to the service of the common man. What he feared, of course, was that understanding philosophy would help the masses resist manipulation and chart their own, more satisfactory value system that does not include blind obedience to an arrogant and self-serving elite.
These proposed reforms are all nice and good, but how do we actually get them installed and up and running in our public educational system? First, we have to recognize just how important they are to the continuation of the American ideal and the principles on which the American republic was originally founded and for which the American revolution was fought, and teach others in our communities about their importance. We have to recognize and educate others that these "novel reforms" were once actually a part of the 18th and 19th century American public educational systems, and have always been a part of the most successful of educational systems, including those of the private schools to which the ruling elites send their children today. We need to come to understand and teach others in our communities why these educational methods were deliberately and carefully abandoned, and insist that they be reinstated. And finally, we can achieve that only by doing what the far-right did to achieve their subversion of the public educational system in the first place - getting ourselves elected to majorities on the local school boards - one school board or curriculum committee at a time - and then pushing these reforms through and finding or training the teachers to actually implement them. Since there are no doctrinal changes being proposed here, the far right will be unable to raise valid, rational objections to these reforms, even though they will certainly find them deeply distasteful - they will be very angry indeed when their own children come home from school raising reasoned and highly critical objections to the predigested value and belief systems of those parents.
I anticipate that likely the principle objection to be raised to this program will be one of cost. But how much greater is the cost of sheep-like servility and an ignorance of how to think for oneself? Just one year of prosecuting the war in Iraq could have paid the additional costs of providing this kind of education to every student in America for an entire generation. And had that kind of educational system been in place when American adults today were being educated, that horrible mistake would never have been made and the badly bungled Iraq war would not have happened. The people would never have permitted it. High costs indeed!
And once these reforms are in place or being implemented, we must prepare ourselves for the battle of our lives. The ruling elites and the right-wing middle-class that they so easily and happily manipulate will sense the threat to their hegemony and will do everything they can think of to stop us and reverse these reforms, as they did so successfully in the late 19th century. And since they have the power and resources of all of government to try to stop us, we will face a formidable opposition indeed. As a political exile, once nearly assassinated, I myself know and understand full well from bitter personal experience just how relentless - and totally ruthless - the ruling elites can be. But it is a challenge we must undertake, a fight we must fight, a battle which we must win to ensure a place in the sun for ourselves and our children. It is by far the greatest gift we could ever hope to bestow on subsequent generations. Would we want any less for them? Should we settle for less?
Copyright © 2008, by Scott Bidstrup. All rights reserved. Todos derechos reservados.