Glenn Greenwald is beyond doubt one of the most thoughtful and independent political thinkers around today. I say that with just the slightest twinge of uncertainty, because I’m not entirely sure what Greenwald’s politics are. Judging from things he’s written about himself here and there, he was a fairly apolitical type — thought we were being well taken care of by our “checks and balances” system, just like they teach you in Social Studies — until the authoritarian pretensions of the Bush Administration shocked him into the realization that the Constitution is not a self-running, self-perpetuating machine — that all popular government will deteriorate if left to our rulers alone. To my knowledge, he’s yet to explain exactly what his view of government is, what it should be doing and what it ought not to interfere with. But our greatest political thinker, Jefferson, never wrote a systematic treatise on politics either. Greenwald’s running commentary on the misdeeds of our rulers is better political thought than 95 percent of the drivel being pumped out at any Washington think-tank. He’s our most indispensable blogger, the only one I’m aware of who might merit a comparison with I. F. Stone.
So it’s distressing to see Greenwald choke on the oldest and most self-destructive leftist myth about politics in his latest entry. Behold:
Matt Taibbi’s new Rolling Stone article perfectly summarizes what the AIG scandal reveals about our political and economic system, and should be read in full. In sum: financial elites own the Government and both political parties. Their money drowns Washington and their lobbyists control it. They used that ownership of Government to abolish decades-old legal and regulatory protections which previously constrained what they could do. In the lawless environment which they literally purchased from our political leaders, they were able to pillage and pilfer and steal without limit. And even now that everything has come crashing down, they continue to dictate what the Government’s response is, to ensure that they — the prime authors of the disaster — are the prime beneficiaries, at the public’s expense, of the “solutions,” solutions which preserve their ill-gotten gains and heighten even further their power and influence.
What I object to here isn’t the content so much as the way it’s framed. It’s incredible to believe that Greenwald, our most penetrating observer of the deviousness and Machiavellian ambitions of the political ruling class, actually believes that our political leaders let “financial elites” tell them what to do. We suffered eight years under a president who thought the Constitution a “piece of paper” to be rewritten at will, a vice president who thought the president had the right to refuse to carry out Congressional laws he disapproved of, and an Administration eager to seize upon any pretext to trash American liberties. We heard nothing but snivelling excuses and evasions from the oppositional party — which, for most of Bush’s term in office, held the support of half or more of the voters — about why they refused to oppose any of this, why they cracked down on any upstart Democrat who dared speak out against any of it. Even in the last election, when a majority of Americans would have been happy to see Bush hauled up in front of their county judge and sentenced to 60 years of janitorial work, Democrats insisted that all Americans cared about was “the economy.” They hastened, in fact, to criticize Wall Street and big business in general. Why would they do that, were they beholden only to Wall Street and big business?
Greenwald knows all this — he hammers it harder, in fact, than any blogger I know of — which is why I find it so hard to believe that he could even entertain the notion that allegiance to big business, of all things, made them do this. Why would a Wall Street broker be eager to see the power of the presidency expanded, or see American troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, or see the Democrats lose elections? Do “financial elites” often favor undemocratic policies? Certainly. But it’s a major leap from that to assuming that financial elites run the country. (Yes, I’m aware that most politicians are rich. But most celebrities are rich too, and we don’t assume that Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson have any sway over our politics.) Why do we not assume that politicians, who actually wield real power, have their own reasons for wanting to maintain that power?
In truth, there is no evidence whatever that the major tenet of leftist thinking — that corporations and corporate bosses run our political system — is true. It amounts to nothing but an extended apology for our political class. Rather than a powerful oligarchy, eager to swindle us out of our democracy, they appear as nothing but well-meaning schmucks who would help us if only they weren’t so frightened of those CEOs. The notion of Washington as a city cowering under the vicious gaze of lobbyists is a pathetic one, but that doesn’t stop foolish leftists from assuming that clamping down on lobbyists would result in a virtuous Washington.
The great Walter Karp, in Indispensable Enemies (the one and only indispensable book ever written about American politics), disposed of this hoary myth beyond any reasonable doubt, and I can’t hope to do justice to his remarkably persuasive argument in a few words. In brief, Karp’s thesis is that there’s no need to resort to hidden forces or conspiracy theories to explain why we are so badly misgoverned. If we assume that we are misgoverned because our political leaders — the bosses of the Republican and Democratic parties — want to misgovern us in order to secure and sustain their own power. It is the very nature of republican government, Karp argues, that forces them to do this. In an authoritarian state, the leaders would largely be free to ignore the discontented unless a revolt broke out; here, the parties’ monopoly control over politics is constantly threatened by the very freeness of our politics, founded on the Constitution and the federal principle. This is why the extension of democracy — contra the Menckenian objections of our libertarian friends — is always and forever a threat to undemocratic government, and the only real solution to it.
If you buy this — and I admit that it seems difficult to swallow at first, considering how schmucky our leaders look and sound on C-SPAN — it becomes increasingly hard to feel safe, to retreat to banalities about “pluralism” and such. Our wrecked economy, dominated by corporations, becomes easier to explain: What better way to prop up corrupt power than to give the moneyed class a stake in it? (Alexander Hamilton, no fool, understood this and believed that it ought to be written into the Constitution.) Karp writes:
It is obvious … that those who wield party power, or would consolidate party power, have compelling political reasons of their own to foster monopoly and no political reason of their own to sustain an economy of small competing producers. We should expect to find in the history of monopoly capitalism the oligarchs’ determined effort to engender monopoly and destroy competition-and that is what we do find. We should expect to find that effort strenuously opposed by the great majority of Americans-and that too we find. What we will not find is what conventional history tells us to look for, namely the “triumph of laissez-faire,” for the history of the formation of monopoly capitalism is history of deliberate government intervention to further monopoly. … what the majority of Americans once clearly understood (is) that behind every monopoly stands the government and, by extension, the party bosses. The notion that the monopoly system developed through autonomous economic processes is an ideological myth.
The list goes on. Our frighteningly arbitrary foreign adventures begin to make sense: Why is it that every major war happened at a time of tremendous domestic turmoil, when the parties’ power over the populace was threatened? Why were party leaders so eager to encourage a centralized school system, with an ever more ferociously dictated curriculum? Why are our tax dollars forever funneled into maintaining a vastly overblown standing army — the very thing the Founders most dreaded and warned against, as the ultimate pretext for governmental abuse — instead of being used to fix that same miserable school system? Finally, why is it that the press is so eager to blame everyone in the world for our troubles — bankers, the rich, the poor, even the press itself — but politicians themselves? Could it be that this is really the most unlikely taboo of them all — to hold those in power responsible for what happens on their watch?