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The Plutocracy Looks to Close the Deal

Donald Trump, otherwise known as the flu, is an unpleasant distraction from the cancer. What is the cancer? It is our growing plutocracy.

Donald Trump is just a blip on the political screen. That might sound like wishful thinking, but in the context of the long term devolution of the United States, it is absolutely true. Imagine for a moment that you have liver cancer. Not the most malignant kind, but one that puts your mean survival rate with treatment at somewhere in the ballpark of three to five years. Now imagine the cancer slows you down and causes physical discomfort from time to time but most days doesn’t prevent you from functioning—going to work, straightening the apartment, tossing a salad. 

Imagine again that on top of the cancer you catch a horrific flu that sends your temperature to 104 and has you writhing around the bathroom floor tiles praying to find a position for two minutes that doesn’t make you want to upchuck your intestines. All you would be thinking about on the bathroom floor was how desperately you wanted to get rid of that flu. The cancer? Well, it’s hardly a consideration during those excruciating moments. You’ll gladly deal with the chemo, radiation, CyberKnife, or modified diet the instant you’re able to stand erect again like the other homo sapiens. 

That’s where we are with Donald Trump, otherwise known as the flu. He is an unpleasant distraction from the cancer. What is the cancer? It is our growing plutocracy.

Our growing plutocracy is at or near the core of virtually every problem we’ve had for the past four decades. When our plutocracy started to metastasize, Donald Trump was a babe in the woods of the Manhattan real estate game sucking at the tit of Roy Cohn. And when Donald Trump has faded from the scene—whether by treason charges or a Twitter-induced heart attack—he will at worst have nudged us from stage 3 to stage 4 plutocracy. Probably not even that. As an oligarch he is pretty incompetent.

The thread of seething materialism and accompanying plutocracy, of course, goes back a long, long way. Our democracy was a bastard child of a series of monarchies in which the explicit purpose of a human life was to serve an inbred king and the riches he had accumulated by dominating and coercing the underclass of his day. Concessions beginning with the Magna Carta and continuing for centuries with Locke, Rousseau, the Enlightenment, and constitutional democracies were just that—concessions. Freedoms extended by the ruling class represented a leash which became less visible, less obvious with increasing length.

The Electoral College is but one strand of that legacy. The underlying ethos in 1789 was the fear of a crazed, uneducated mob storming the halls of power not with rifles and pitchforks but with their votes. 

As the Industrial Revolution took hold, conventional wisdom consisting of one part intellectual prowess, one part prudence, and one part money was largely replaced by purely capital driven power. But the robber barons of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century nonetheless carried an implicit responsibility driven both by the social contract and by simple personal fear of death and judgment. When Andrew Carnegie spent his declining years giving away the vast wealth he had accumulated on the backs of steelworkers aging a full year every calendar month, “You can't take it with you” was the operative philosophy.

By the 1980s there was virtually no semblance of American historical ruling class remaining. Vast wealth became only marginally tied to innovation or production and increasingly tied to the ability to manipulate the market. The 80s mantra coined by Malcolm Forbes, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” was said only partially in jest. The denial of a tomorrow, whether for the hoarder of wealth himself or for following generations, removed the final barrier between instinctive but self-contained human avarice and unbridled parasitism in the market. When Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street uttered the infamous words, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good,” the irony was lost on the majority of moviegoers.

But few utterances or bodies of work even come close to capturing the pathology of unadulterated avarice and the unenlightened self-interest of the Citigroup Plutonomy Memos. If you think Donald Trump’s complete tax returns are hard to get, try finding and downloading the Citigroup memos on the internet. Written by analysts at the banking behemoth in 2005 and 2006 and leaked not long after, these documents provide a clear window to the voracious id of global capitalism and finance. For individuals of less than otherworldly means, as most of us are, reading these memos is about as pleasant as perusing the diary of your adulterous spouse.

The authors of the Citigroup memos first pine for a world where non-multimillionaires are virtually obsolete and then celebrate the fact that we're on the precipice of that world. Speaking directly to wealthy investors looking to avoid wasting time and capital, the authors cite the raw statistics—consumption at the top percent equaling that for the bottom sixty, etc.

The pragmatic meaning of the numbers was that investors could stop worrying about the consumer demands of teachers, firefighters, accountants and masons because selling a single luxury yacht was better than selling a thousand coffee mugs with “World’s Best Mom” on the side. The celebratory aspect of these same numbers was that the great class war was just about over and the guys in goofy captain hats had won. Even if the arm wrestling match wasn’t officially over, the downtrodden were barely holding a centimeter above the tabletop.

The cautionary portion of the memos warned there might be trouble in paradise. The disenfranchisement of around 99 percent of the populace was acceptable only if the disenfranchised maintained a belief, misguided or not, that they had a fair chance one day of joining the one percent. Once any such belief was lost, civil disobedience, legal or otherwise, threatened to upset the idyllic Citigroup paradigm. Underscoring the entire caveat was the one-person-one-vote rule, which the authors mourned the way decent human beings mourn mortality itself.

No matter how hard Citigroup continues to bury these documents and no matter what political pull the middle class manages to hang onto by a thread, this is essentially where we stand today, with or without a Donald Trump. The powers that be want to finish the job. They want to pile on a few more insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth inning and bring out a closer who throws 101-mile-per-hour two-seam fastballs. Decimating Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, emaciating environmental protection, and ensuring the Supreme Court will spend the next thirty years ruling against anyone who mows their own lawn, all together spell out a brave new world where someone already disproportionately enjoying the fruits of underclass labor is assured a place in the clouds for life. In this paradigm, potential catastrophes of the distant future barely register a note, since the future as a concept is nothing more than an abstract notion invented by effete university intellectuals to ensure tenure. 

The ultimate value of the Citigroup memos is akin to that of Hitler's Mein Kampf. The unabashed transparent and unselfconscious look inside the delinquent mind of corrupt power confirms and clarifies the worst fears of the intended victim and serves as a clarion call. The Citigroup memos prefigured the Occupy Wall Street movement with eerie prescience. The folks gathered in Zuccotti Park day after day may not have had a workable defense for the establishment’s long term assault, but the assault was entirely real.

Given the powerful venom of the Citigroup memos, one might even ask why the financial upper class, adrift from any sense of national heritage, morality, or accountability, would allow the less fortunate to survive let alone register a vote. Ceaseless gerrymandering, voter restriction laws, and precipitation of more Flint, Michigans would seem to validate a contempt for the 99 percent so thorough and all encompassing that a slaughterhouse is more in order than a boardroom. Honestly, why do they allow us to live at all?

The answer is complex and multifaceted. The Reader’s Digest version goes something like this. The super rich are not ready to embrace robotics fully until robotics fully embraces them. Maids, drivers, hookers, and orthodontists still seem to serve a useful purpose, but damn it, we’ll try to keep an open mind. And of course, it's hard to look down your nose at robots. However, looking down your nose at someone who graduated from law school but who can at the moment only find work at Jiffy Lube is easy. When you look down you need someone looking back up.

Furthermore, corpses are messy. The demise of the less well off is a tantalizingly slow and arduous process punctuated by tragic drug overdoses, massive incarceration, and embarrassing decline in the national life expectancy. Hurrying it up doesn't make it any easier. We are reminded of counterfeiters and money launderers stuck with a billion dollars in twenties. The problem is where to put it all. A mountain of cadavers is a logistical problem great empires have faced before. Practical solutions can preempt some of the most pleasant strolls down a country lane or across a back nine. Not to mention the notion James Baldwin attributes to Elijah Muhammad: “The most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose.” Those who don’t die come back to kill you. Ask Vito Corleone.

How did the superrich get this way? Maybe the problem was they woke up one day and realized the Grim Reaper could not be bribed. Perhaps becoming super wealthy very often—though not always— requires many of the same traits that make you an insatiable creep. Possibly many of these people have deluded themselves in much the same way Gordon Gekko once did. But in the end, we cannot give a rat's ass why. Reflecting on your predator’s psychobabble may be commendable, but once the werewolf lunges for your throat you are entitled to impale him without first inquiring about his daytime identity.

Since we of relatively modest resources are unwelcome yet nonetheless here to stay for a while, it is up to us to make the best of it. Ironically or not, the default reasons we are kept alive in however marginal a condition are the very same weapons we have at our disposal in fighting the prospect of complete plutocracy. Our physical bodies are inconvenient to the plutocracy, whether those bodies are waging outright violence or vaguely implying it through peaceful protest. Our votes are also inconvenient and a constant reminder that the perfect gated community will perhaps forever remain elusive. And for right now, the plutocracy still needs us to collect their garbage and write their favorite apps.

Whether by happenstance or by cruel design, Donald Trump serves as the ultimate smokescreen for the very same elitist agenda he promised his gullible voters to overthrow. But this smokescreen is supported by a highly unstable chemical reaction, and Trump is living on time borrowed at loan shark rates. The ultimate user of the little guy is himself a little guy being used. He will be gone in the time it takes to procure a sitcom pilot script, produce a few inane episodes, and pull the plug for bad ratings. What awaits us in the aftermath is the final battle of the American plutocracy. We'd better be ready. Like Donald Trump, we too are living on borrowed time.