By Michael Hoexter, Ph.D.
In the final section of this essay, I will look at the combined effect of the conflicts and collusion between the two types of Machiavellian political actors that dominate the higher offices and influential media organizations in the United States and to a lesser degree in other countries today. Looking solely and narrowly at one party or the other encourages myopia and the creation of a “voodoo doll” in which all manner of evil is thought to be embodied, i.e. projected onto. Thus our tendencies towards psychological “splitting” from our childhoods are supported by finding the supposedly single locus of “bad”. The process of collapse of our democracy is more complex and encompassing than just the description, criticism and/or demonization of one party or set of actors.
The focus on just one actor as the primary source of political evil has split progressives and the Left in the period 2016 to the present: there are some who focus almost exclusively on the neoliberal Democratic Party and its neoconservative militarist allies as essentially the “worst human beings” in or near seats of political power. Others focus almost exclusively on Trump, the Trumpist Republicans and/or the far right outside the Republican Party. These essays here are an attempt at synthesis of what might be called a “two-front” battle for the future of American democracy and, in an era of rapid climate deterioration, generalized to other nations, the future of human civilization on the planet. I will at the end offer an outline of what an anti-Machiavellian politics and policy orientation would look like.
Common Threads Across Right-wing and Centrist Machiavellianisms 1: The Billionaire Class
The most important common feature shared between Machiavellians in the two Parties and their peripheries is the power and patronage of ultra-rich donors and large corporations, biased towards the Center and the Right, with hardly any portion of an actual Left receiving patronage of significance. The donors may issue “orders” to the political actors who they fund, their “front people”, but most of the time they can construct an elaborate system of incentives that include direct payments or “donations” of cash or employment opportunities but also the conferring of social prestige via pseudo-independent funding institutions that are supposedly solid, glamorous, or lofty in their goals. For media organizations, these same donors can, in other capacities, buy or influence the buying of advertising (for a variety of purposes, including direct commercial aims) and therefore sustain or improve the bottom line of for-profit media or, via large donations, the operating budgets of donation-dependent non-profit media corporations, like National Public Radio.
The subtle, now neoliberal, system of incentives and disincentives is, as discussed previously here, a Gramscian “war of position” that leads to hegemonic forms of power, forms that rule mostly by constructing a “common sense” favoring plutocratic rule rather than, more rarely, by direct exertion of force, coercing many of the governed. Hegemony is usually a stronger form of governing and social dominance than direct governance by threat and force, i.e. direct domination.
There are however no pure expressions of one Gramscian type of rule or the other in reality: the mostly hegemonic neoliberal system is bolstered by, now increasingly, direct exertion of force in many countries around the world and was, as well, at its infancy in 1973 in Chile, “birthed” by a violent, CIA-organized coup d’etat by General Augusto Pinochet overthrowing the socialist government of Salvador Allende. That coup d’etat provided an economic “playground” for the “Chicago Boys”, economists taught by Friedman and Hayek, to construct a brutal market-based economy designed to further enrich the fortunate in the name of market “efficiencies”.
The neoliberal era in the more central, wealthier-than-Chile capitalist countries didn’t require the exertion of such brutality on populations that were still beneficiaries of the long post-World War II economic boom with post-War Keynes-influenced economic policies supporting generous welfare states in many nations. Subaltern populations, internal colonized peoples in the central countries, like African-Americans and Algerians and Sub-Saharan African immigrants in France, however have almost always been ruled more by the direct domination of the state. Now, increasingly the exertion of force is spreading to entire multi-racial populations of working people, including the vicious police attacks on the gillets jaunes and other anti-austerity protestors in France. Increasing reliance on direct domination by state power within the still-neoliberal regimes and era, does not erase the hegemonic “sleights of hand” of neoliberal politics and policy. Neoliberalism still creates “buy-in” for certain more comfortable parts of the population, forming an ideological veil and loyal middle-class client groupings (the professional managerial class) behind which ruling elites and increasingly oligarchs have enriched themselves and hollowed out the welfare systems of a variety of countries with the assent of many of the governed, in the name of “modernity” and “efficiency”.
Almost the entire donor class abhors the actual, functioning left wing, the progressive Left, as represented in electoral politics in the US by such figures as Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. The donor class and their political employees and allies try to exclude progressives or at least their ideas from the common sense they and their emissaries attempt to construct. In Great Britain, Jeremy Corbyn was recently treated to a barrage of smears and an almost unified media front of scorn and opprobrium. The class interests of the owners of the supposedly “free” press have come to the fore in attempting to “ring fence” and sideline progressive politicians that, among other things, would raise the taxes of the wealthy and speak of plans to more stringently regulate capitalism, if not replace it with either a worker-owned-enterprise market economy or a more public-sector-led left-social democratic or socialist economy.
The ultra-rich donor class and their desires for still more control over their circumstances, their assets, and still greater accumulations of wealth can be said to be the central rationale and, such as it is, planning instance of the current political system. Their front people, the politicians, do not stand at the center of the operation; they must constantly maneuver, change positions and improvise or fall out of favor. The most precise, brief way to label our emergent political-economic system is that of a hegemony-based neoliberal oligarchy that is increasingly turning to authoritarianism and outright fascism to maintain nascent oligarchs’ positions of power and wealth, i.e. turning increasingly to more direct forms of domination over working people and the population more generally. The disruptions of social “business as usual” via the increased levels of migration of war- and climate-refugees, create multiple occasions to stir xenophobic nationalism that can be used to bolster authoritarianism and neo-fascism. These plutocrats however rest their rationale for dominance and their businesses/investments on an inherently unstable and short-sighted system, the unchecked capitalist economic system that is immiserating billions and mining-out and thus undermining the ability of the natural world to support humanity much longer. While, as in the above description of hegemony, these billionaires do not often issue direct commands, they have, especially since the fall of the two-pole world of the Cold War, constructed a system of political and cultural patronage and media ownership and consolidation, which creates an almost all-encompassing system of discourse and action that, in turn, justify actions by others (the many non-billionaire and non-centimillionaire employees and operatives) that support and further their interests out of a combination of ideological blinders or direct patronage and corruption.
Common Threads Across Right-wing and Centrist Machiavellianisms 2: Anti-Democracy
Another common thread in the current bipartisan (though internally varied) Machiavellianism is that democratic, transparent decision making is weakened or entirely circumvented in favor of “back room” dealing, leading to little significant popular input into the actual policies enacted. Machiavellianism by its nature is a hold-over/recurrence from pre-democratic forms of government and tends towards court politics, the preservation of existing personal privileges and powers in a pyramidal or radial configuration around “royalty”, in this case the neoliberal oligarchs/donor class. Court politics contrasts with and tends to undermine democratic politics decided via parliamentary or transparent executive deliberation, supported by more-or-less fair, adequately informative, and wide-ranging media coverage. The tendency of the last two decades for both American political parties to strengthen the executive branch at the expense of the deliberative parliamentary branch, has created increasingly the approximation of a monarchic Presidency, leading to an increasingly radial configuration of political life around the executive, who is able, between elections, to make inscrutable and quasi-dictatorial decisions around a whole host of issues.
Without constant effort to work against Machiavellian court politics, it seems that political systems tend towards increasing non-transparent insider jockeying and trading of favors. The powerful favor shielding their jostling with each other and deal-making behind closed doors rather than opening up their deliberations to the broader public, i.e. a democracy. If left to themselves, they would increasingly rely on Machiavellian methods. Contemporary journalism and media conglomerates have supported the trend towards Machiavellian maneuvering by focusing on personalities, small incidents, and trivial distinctions between political factions, all distractions from the core substantive issues and power dynamics as described here.
The United States Constitution and the subsequent U.S. democratic experiment can be viewed as one such monumental effort to replace a court politics (most specifically the politics of the court of the English King George III) in favor of a democratic system, including the fostering of a more or less free press. The US system (among others) is in need of renewal as it has not evolved enough to address numerous challenges to its now 230-year-old institutions, including social, technological, economic and ecological developments. Some of the most antiquated parts of the current system that reinforce the power of plutocrats and neo-royalists are the following: first-past-the-post voting systems, the electoral college, the Senate filibuster as well as the Senate as an institution as a whole, money as speech, corporations as individuals with rights, stalling since 1959 on inclusion of former colonies and Washington DC from statehood. Predatory actors have so undermined the current system that it no longer approximates the more benign and foresighted aspects of the founding vision of the writers of the Constitution.
Common Threads Across Right-wing and Centrist Machiavellianisms 3: Public Cynicism and Fatalism
Still another common thread shared by Machivellians of both the right-wing and centrist persuasions is the promotion of and shared semi-conscious cynicism about public service, about human rights and the shared destiny of humanity. The cynical belief that public service and a shared project of the betterment of humanity is laughable can be observed in the hostility with which the progressives, as well as some others are treated. Bernie Sanders, for instance, a lifelong public servant and relatively selfless for such a successful politician, is treated by those who view the world via neoliberal ways of thinking, as (paradoxically but unironically) a full-blown narcissist, a starry-eyed idealist or a boring nag. Sanders is so characterized within neoliberal “common sense” because of his stubborn insistence that public service has value and his insistence over decades on taking principled stands on a variety of issues. ‘Surely,’ thinks the neoliberally indoctrinated, ‘Sanders is virtue-signaling, trying to feed his ego by claiming to be better than ordinary self-interested people’.
The pervasive cynicism of our era is a direct product of the neoliberal ideology that suggests that the natural state of society, including government, is in the form of markets driven by individual self-interest. The existence of people driven to serve the public or humanity at large in a sincere, dutybound manner must be blotted out of the cognitive universe of those enmeshed in neoliberal ways of thinking. Various forms of psychological denial are used to marginalize or suppress the possibility that there could exist principled public service or citizen engagement in politics. To acknowledge that those are real and distinct possibilities undermines the cynical but very common neoliberal assumption that “everybody is in it for themselves”.
Another way to describe cynicism-as-norm, is that deontological ethical systems, moral systems based on a sense of duty to abstract rules of right-and-wrong and following “good” rules of conduct, are considered quaint, dangerous, or, in assumption, non-existent.
Another operative metaethics in contemporary society is consequentialism, which, in its purer forms, leads to an undecidability with regard to what are a priori good rules of conduct: consequentialism is all about good outcomes that cannot be known from the beginning of taking any action. Consequentialism, which is almost always utilitarianism in practice, justifies any means to achieve a good outcome: it’s motto is “what works is what’s good”. In practice, a pure consequentialism tends towards amorality, as no rules of conduct are accepted as good, valid or binding. Consequentialism is closely tied to both neoliberalism and more generally the ethics of capitalists: outcomes matter more than rules. Machiavellianism, if it can be said to have any ethical justification, would rely on consequentialism to explain why the pursuit of individual power can under some circumstances lead to good effects overall: the “ends will justify the means”. A true Machiavellian, however, would only use the supposed targeting of good outcomes as a ruse or cover for the advancement of their own interest. However, political operators who use consequentialist ethics as a justification are closer to Machiavellian strategies than deontologically or virtue-ethics oriented individuals.
Related to the encouragement of public cynicism, paradoxically both right-wing Machiavellians and centrist Machiavellians deploy the vision of moral perfectionism as a bludgeon or an excuse to do nothing about the world’s problems. Cynics often operate with unrealistic ideas about what a truly moral person would be doing, ideas so unrealistic that no good actions are undertaken. The cynic tells themselves and advertises loudly to others that taking action is useless because moral perfection is impossible. Right-wing Machiavellians, who are deeply cynical and sometimes aware of it themselves, use such an unrealistic vision of perfection to savage any attempts to better the world, as a bludgeon. They don’t tend to hold themselves up as paragons of some moral virtue but seem to despair, often with crocodile tears, of any efforts to realize a moral vision in the (secular) world. Some religious cynics, often adhering to some fundamentalist sect, locate their particular morality within the confines of otherworldly ideas about deities or scripture, but maintain the moral passivity of secular cynics. Centrist Machiavellians also use visions of moral perfection, particularly with regard to individual behavior, to attack most often progressives who are trying to drive
Common Threads Across Right-wing and Centrist Machiavellianisms 4: Anti-worker, Anti-Union, Anti-Socialist
Both centrist and right-wing Machiavellians also share a common anti-worker, anti-union, anti-socialist and anti-Communist perspective though here there is some variety between the two Machiavellian tendencies.
Centrist Machiavellians believe in the fundamental goodness of what to them appear to be meritocratic hierarchies where they envision that the smartest and most deserving people are at the top of the social pyramid and people are financially and socially rewarded based on their inherent worth and contribution to society. The lower level manual workers in that hierarchy are, in the view of the neoliberal centrist, are already getting their just rewards, so agitating for greater pay or more benefits for them (via unions or political change) disrupts centrist elite’s idea of fairness of reward. They are also particularly sanguine about replacing workers with robots, as they do not see themselves (generally white-collar workers or wealthy owners) as being ever primarily dependent on manual or service work for their livelihood. The increasing automation of some forms of white-collar work, undermines their self-image as elite, less vulnerable workers who identify with the aims of capital rather than labor.
The anti-worker, anti-socialist and anti-Communist attitudes of, mostly now neofascist-tending, right-wing Machiavellians is more confused and emotionally-laden. 20th Century fascism emerged as a right-wing response to Communism and the European worker’s movement, that cribbed some of the symbology and political techniques of left revolutionary movements of the early 20th Century for the purposes of restoring old social hierarchies and racist exclusion of minorities. The official name of the Nazi party was “National Socialist Worker’s Party” after all, a naming which right-wingers now attempt to use as a means of disowning the crimes of the Nazis as “left-wing”. Right-wing Machiavellians deal with a biologistic view of value, where membership in the national community via “blood” is the primary appeal to working people. Meanwhile, as with others on the right-wing, fascists reinforce social hierarchies and are obedient authoritarians, prone to worship the charismatic leadership of their movement.
Right-wing Machiavellians of the neofascist type, such as Trump and the new alt-right, attempt to appeal to fear- and aggression-based instincts and a somewhat outdated “common sense”, romantic notions of national belonging, while at the same time, in action, serving the interests of wealthy elites. They use paranoia-tinged language to warn of the possible “encirclement” and encroachment on “freedoms” via socialism, communism. As the fascist leadership are mostly scam artists and pure sociopaths, they are comfortable acting at complete variance to their “ideology” with regard to explaining to working people why they should believe in the demagogue, while simultaneously supporting legislation that accelerates the material decline of working people’s living standards.
The anti-intellectual US right-wing leadership is anti-socialistic by instinct because they are also threatened by the idea in socialism that rationalistic improvement via government action will be based on scientific understanding of society and the natural world. The secular nature of most socialistic approaches to the world threatens the faith-based but extractivist ideals of a providentialist (believing in divine providence rather than earthly events) anti-agape love Christianity which has been the matrix for many in the US who are now tending towards or embracing neofascism. The notion of a ordered, human-created, democratic system by which people are guaranteed basic rights also closes down much of the parasitic “opportunities,” the social space, that scam-based businesses, religious and political operations thrive. The sociopathic leadership of much of the right-wing preys on people’s vulnerabilities, instinctive fears of physical violence and pollution/infection and sense of powerlessness: to empower people by giving them enhanced rights and freeing them from private debt-peonage is a direct threat to the leadership at least.
Speculatively, much of the base of right-wing authoritarian and neofascist movements, are timid and conventional people who feel empowered by identification with the wild, paranoid-tending revenge fantasies spun by their leaders. They are enfolded in the irrationalism and “passion” of submission to their leaders and are threatened by the claims of socialism or progressive social change because it means for one, change, and also it means embracing a more rationalistic view of how human beings can operate in the world. They are assured by their “common sense” that all of that thinking and change will lead to naught or worse, threatening the cultural identities and practices they hold dear; the narrative they hold fixedly to is part depressive and part vengeful lashing out at the new and the other. So while many of them are beneficiaries of past “socialistic” policies, like Social Security or Medicare, they are also strongly motivated by resentment and racism directed at others: they want to exclude others from benefits and from society as much or more as gain benefits from a socialistic program of change and improved social services.
There are also strong paranoid elements of American culture and society expressed in right-wing politics for which the notion of a socialistic collectivity working together functions as a trigger for paranoid fears of encirclement and shutting off forms of escape. That humans are social animals and that paranoid people already benefit from being part of collectivity are, in the narratives that paranoids tell themselves, partitioned off from their conceptions about what is good in the world and what keeps them safe: they only want to focus on routes of escaping feared others who are “out to get them”. The right-wing leadership plays endlessly with these fears typical of paranoia-tending people, who are sure they are persecuted as they attempt to hide the benefits and privileges they enjoy. Claiming victimhood is always very close to the surface and is deployed by the authoritarian leaders in narratives like the Nazi “Dolchstosslegende”(stab in the back) and Trump’s constant claims of his own and his followers’ victimhood.
Common Threads Across Right-wing and Centrist Machiavellianisms 5: Media Alliances Create Opportunities to Covertly Manipulate Public Opinion and Attack Opponents
Both the right-wing Machiavellians of the Republican Party and alt-right/neofascists as well as centrist, neoliberal Machiavellians have ample access to and interaction with various highly influential broadcast and Internet media “properties”, i.e. organizations that have substantial influence and control over the flow of information to certain segments of the population. Both the GOP and radical right and the centrist Machiavellians can in different ways create “echo chambers” that reinforce their preferred views of the world or the views which their animating segments of the donor class/plutocracy want to project out into the world. The reinforcement of donors or politicians’ political views via media “sock-puppets” creates a way for politicians to disown or seem to be “independent” of views that overall support their worldview and political agenda.
It has become clearer that media organizations have been sacrificing their journalistic ethics and missions to become public relations arms of various political agendas or candidacies. A cycle of mutual recriminations by these media outlets and the politicians themselves hides the overall systemic problem of media abandoning their truth-telling functions for propagandistic missions. Pre-emptively Trump, for instance, has picked up the accusation of “Fake News” and directed it at unfavorable (often truthful) coverage of his politics and policy. But he is supported almost exclusively by various propaganda channels that masquerade as supposedly independent information sources: “fake news” is the norm on these pro-Trump channels reflecting Trump’s own propensity to lie much of the time. Trump himself was helped by channels such as CNN during his candidacy, that he now calls “fake news”: they broadcast his rallies often in their entirety, giving his campaign billions of dollars in free publicity.
The “fourth estate” is functioning as a “fifth column” for a variety of political actors, with for instance, editors and journalists being schooled on “talking points” by campaigns or at least giving off the impression that they are both a workshop for the talking points as well as a faithful echo chamber for those talking points. In Great Britain, we have just witnessed one of the most coordinated campaigns by media and good portion of the political spectrum against Jeremy Corbyn, replete with false accusations of anti-Semitism that were echoed on both sides of the Atlantic. The British media is even more concentrated than the US media, but supposedly left, Labour-friendly newspapers magazines were also part of the coordinated campaign against Corbyn.
An Ultra-Corrupt System Teetering Near Collapse
While the prime beneficiaries of the current political system can be seen to be continuing to amass more power and wealth both openly and behind the scenes, the world in general, including the political front the plutocrats have shaped to their benefit is in a state of near-collapse. The legitimized post-War Keynesian political-economic system of the period 1945-1973 which lent respectability and solidity to political-economic institutions is now being completely gutted by plutocrats intent on sucking out the last profits, before, perhaps, attempting to retreat to some island, tax-haven, or imagined fortress. The current billionaire technology fantasy shared by Bezos, Branson and Musk is to occupy other planets, as an escape from the mess humans have made of the earth.
Analogous to the economist Hyman Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis about financial markets, ‘stability has bred instability’ in the entire political-economic system. Out of greed and carelessness, powerful political and business leaders have tended to assume that all the benefits (to them) and stability of the managed capitalism of the post-War era, would trail them and, by accident, the rest of us into the neoliberal era (1973-present) of deregulation and looting of the institutions of developed countries. Alternatively, the looters and deregulators believe that they, if they accumulate enough wealth or maintain friendly connections with the ultra-wealthy, they can spare themselves from the chaos and impoverishment they help create via their own actions. All key actors seem to believe they can escape to a refuge from the disorder and degradation they create in the society and biosphere that nourished them and their businesses or institutions. Some entertain the more modest fantasies of withdrawal to an own-home or a retirement retreat, while, as above, billionaires commandeer islands, vast ranches, or foolishly contemplate escape from the Earth itself.
With the exception of a few political actors that show a way forward, mostly concentrated on the progressive Left, both major U.S. political Parties have deep structural problems that put them on the edge of disintegration as important political forces. The Republican Party has become a center of neo-fascist, white supremacist authoritarian leaders that are also scam artists. Contrary to the image of the regimented fascists of mid-20th Century Europe that emerged from the ranks of disaffected ex-soldiers after WWI (Hitler and Mussolini were both veterans of WWI), the neofascists of the Republican Party and their supporting media infrastructure are short-sighted sociopaths, always compulsively lying and attempting to gain short-term economic advantage for either themselves or their impatient donors. Their strategy to “deconstruct the Administrative State” looks sometimes a lot like sheer incompetence and a general lack of curiosity and interest in all but the most basic matters and fundamentals of their ideology. Many of them appear to be unintelligent, impulsive and short-sighted. With a high percentage of sociopaths in their ranks, their tendency to scam and rob makes them difficult to regiment into a functioning organization and creates scandals, where and when media or a political opposition has the wherewithal to expose wrongdoing.
The complete and open corruption of the right-wing makes it then an unstable and vulnerable political structure: they are prone to be delegitimized by self-dealing and by exposure either by elite institutions that are still not entirely “bought” or by popular movements that emerge from those that have been bilked and are now, rightfully, angry. The GOP and right-wing then totter as a political force because of their constant need to create a world of unreality via propaganda to divert the attention of the electorate from their actual actions in government, their monomaniacal pursuit of their own self-enrichment, and their alliances with the most-anti-social fringe groups on the far right.
Despite this fragility, the corruption and cluelessness of the media and the predatory nature of the newly emergent neo-fascist right-wing means that it is an ongoing struggle to maintain the democratic institutions and public sphere from complete corruption by the right-wing. Trump and his team have shown an ability to utilize the degraded political information systems of the United States to further “gas-light” the public and keep their opposition buffaloed, despite a weakening position.
The meekness and subservience of the Democratic Party and the center-right/center-left that it now represents is also a huge political morass and stumbling block to social progress. The Democratic leadership as now constituted can in most situations be exposed as weak, with now only a few of its actually-left representatives in Congress, in statehouses, and on the campaign trail, being determined fighters for political causes that transcend politician self-interest. The Pelosi-Schumer-Perez led Democratic Party has no apparent inclination to consistently fight against the agenda of the Republicans and seem to think that “competing” on greater cooperativeness and civility is the golden gateway to political success. It seems, though, far more likely that the Democrats are not targeting anything like political power or success in the same way as do power-hungry Republicans.
Democrats are also hampered by the loose coalition of interest and identity group structure of the party as faced off against the ideological core of Republican beliefs and the White-Christian core identity of the GOP. The diversity of the Democratic Party that could be a strength under some conditions, creates the ability for the donor class that run the Party to “divide and conquer” inside the Party, laming any reform efforts and development of ideological unity. The ability to divide progressives among different causes was on display at the August 2019 summer meeting of the Democratic National Committee where the most contentious issue was whether the Party would sanction an official climate debate, pressed by the Sunrise Movement in particular and by some insurgent delegates. At that meeting, a succession of delegates claiming to represent issues other than climate change as priorities and often claiming represent historically oppressed groups, were successfully mobilized to vote against the allowance by the DNC of an official climate debate, because it would show favor to only one of the many constituencies of the Democratic Party.
The Democrats can then, even in the face of the existential threat of climate change, be divided into sub-constituencies, each of them thinking that their cause merits them breaking would-be solidarity despite facing a common threat. The Democrats are then quite easily divided, under the banner of one sectoral but righteous cause or another. The same dynamic has been mobilized against efforts to institute radical reforms such as Medicare for All or Free College for All, not so much because of ideology but because the Party has developed cadres of corrupt individual leaders and operatives who can represent a sectoral cause, with justified historical grievances, as a tool to block reform and the development of a common program across interest groups.
Unfortunately, the figures of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were deployed as such dividers of progressive causes driving wedges between social liberalism and economic progressivism. Obama and Hillary Clinton were figures that were trusted by the donor class and deployed their personal identities as respectively an African-American man and a woman to signal “caring” and progressivism while selling or implementing a pro-corporate or pro-imperialist agenda. While “identity politics” has become a loaded term, as has “populism”, the use of such a politics, or any sectoral political concern beyond identity, to block fundamental reform efforts is a central device and use of the Democratic Party and its surrounding social milieus for and by the plutocratic ruling classes.
In summary then the Democratic Party is a complex chimera that has valuable functions to ruling elites, though not often to its constituents. The Establishment Democratic Party with its obsequiousness to the opposing Republicans, its avoidance of governing, supported by elite media, educational, and cultural institutions, functions
- as a mechanism to divide political forces that would challenge plutocratic power around worthy but controversial causes, creating a movement divided against itself, intentionally.
- as a form of legitimation of the plutocratic neoliberal, neo-fascist tending order by offering a nominally “caring” face to the plutocrats and a means for the “left” of the elite donor class to appear also “caring”, “woke”, and philanthropic.
Thus popular discontent is better contained and the pro-plutocratic economic and political order is shored up by the twisted, divided-against-themselves Democrats.
Collapse or Explosion?
The waves of mass demonstrations around the world in the last few months of 2019 are showing to discontented people that there are ways of at least expressing discontent and hope for a better future that might change regional, national or world history. The failures of both sides of the current neoliberal political spectrum: increasingly fanatical ethno-nationalists and guardians of the economic status quo as well as incrementalist but often fatally compromised reformers to offer meaningful change and the prospect of human betterment has led to a potentially explosive situation. In this explosive situation, political institutions and parties have made themselves mostly irrelevant to the the broad masses of people and their aspirations for a better life.
While disruptions of the status quo are welcome coming from the streets, without organized political groupings and eventually parties that can wield political power, not much will be changed in the longer run. The spontaneity of demonstrations and crowds is important but cannot replace the need in complex societies for the coordination of social services and actions that, in their best forms, political institutions can help shepherd or lead in times of crisis. Social movements need to be constantly challenging the status quo but at the same time cannot by themselves organize the myriad details of the complex, internationally-linked societies in which people now live.
The challenge of effective climate action is as “Janus-faced” as it will get in terms of the need for disruptiveness as well as for competent public administration. New ways of life will need to be invented that at the same time, emit net zero carbon, which is something that only can be build and then measured by careful social organization, communication and guided by public entities, like governments. Some spontaneous changes from the ground up will yield the desired outcomes and some spontaneous, ground-up changes will not yield desirable outcomes and both will need to be measured for their impact on the global commons. People’s intuitive “gut” senses of what is right or sustainable will need to be subjected to some forms of measurement in order for the net-zero or negative greenhouse gas emissions goals to be achieved.
Rather than create social disruption for its own sake, the movement towards a net-zero emitting society must also salvage or create new institutions that facilitate sustainable development and the creation of an entirely green social metabolism with high levels of coordination across regional and national boundaries. Before that happens, the polluting ways of life we now engage in will need to be disassembled, mostly by majoritarian public agreement that we cannot go on treating the basis of our and co-evolved species lives with disregard. Social collapses or social explosions are possibilities but recovery must be quick for humanity to rescue its own chances for survival as
Bringing the discussion back to the matter of political practice, it is highly unlikely that a Machiavellian-led politics will help effect the self-rescue of humanity from it’s fossil fuel addiction and self-destructive economy. Machiavellians focus is on their own personal benefit first, narrowly defined, and, depending on the type of Machiavellian, only thereafter applying a veneer of “leadership” or “concern” with which they beguile others, including voters to support them. Prime anti-Machiavellian strategies include:
- Exposure of the meta-strategies of powerful political actors in public events and in media where possible
- Supporting independent media that is chartered or founded upon a truth-telling function and on investigation for the public good
- Reforming political institutions so that they reflect popular will via democratic processes, including updating voting rules to expand the franchise (proportional voting/rank choice voting, election days as holidays, same day registration, prosecution of voter suppression via government officials)
- Banning private funding of elections, starting with limiting the influence of large and corporate donors. In the interim, run small-donor funded campaigns as do the Bernie Sanders-influenced progressive candidates.
- Field candidates on local, state, and federal levels that replace corporate- and plutocrat-funded candidates with small-donor funded candidates.
- Create and build social and citizen’s movements that pressure governments to build the future society we need as well as pre-figure, as much as possible, social changes that are beneficial to human survival
The road is long and hard: none of this is or will be easy. But understanding the machinations of Machiavellians is necessary, not to admire them and their cunning, but to expose their plans to the light of day and to public discussion and/or condemnation where needed. Their privatization of political discussion, influence and power is unacceptable and must be stopped by enhanced, more widespread, and more truthful discussion and engagement.
Challenging read, almost symphonic in terms of overall structure. There seemed to be an undercurrent again and again pointing out means leading to specific goals and rewards. Using the word dividend to describe this seems relevant. Especially in evaluating so called democracy based institutions, as if we could quite simply view outcomes as a “Dividend of Democracy, for better or worse. For worse examples: wealth inequality, social apathy, dysfunctional system of justice. For better dividends so many possibilities exist. Take election holidays as mentioned think paid holiday if you voted, regardless of employment status. Personal reward, reward to city, county,state all possible examples. As I’ve seen many positive ideas from NEP on JG it’s obvious this should be considered a Dividend of Democracy. Free education? what about paid education? anything improving our society could potentially be rewarded. Extreme perhaps, just uncovering the crystal ball. Thanks for the read Michael.
You’re welcome, Scott!
I have been deeply involved in trying to get traction for ethics in climate policy for 30 years in fact I just received the Avecinna Prize for my work on climate ethics. Your description of the failure to get supportable public policy that includes criticisms of the media, a shockingly weak Democratic party and I would add even a weak NGO that fails to help citizens understand the role that the well financed market based ideology that has been the starting assumption of even environmental groups is a brilliant description of what I have experienced. Thank you
Thank you, Donald, for your work and for your kind words. It is indeed frustrating to deal with politicians who claim to support ethical principles but rarely do. We are lucky that there is a growing movement in US politics to combine a more stringent ethical orientation and public service.
A rather difficult read. I would like to share this on social media but I doubt it would get a single read among my friends and family. This can be done but we need words that resonate with the less well educated, which includes me. This essay helped me understand how people can follow a person who will work against there behalf and do it believing they are doing the right thing. Don’t give up, it is an existential crisis and MMT will be a necessary system to get us through this difficult situation.