A couple of nights ago, as I was following links deeper into the blogosphere in search of a possible explanation for why #occupyWallStreet has sprung at this moment and where it might go, I came upon a series of videos by Damon Vrabel, a self-described “post-neoclassical economic philosopher”, for a “course” he calls Renaissance 2.0 that purports to explain money in a way it isn’t usually thought about by philosophers on the left or right. I’m not particularly clever with money or economics myself, so I was curious to see if Vrabel, whom I’d just watched in a very interesting interview with Max Keiser (it’s in three parts, with part 2 here and part 3 here), could help me get a handle on it. I recommend the whole series.
Here is the first part:
Now if you’re on the left politically and are aware of Libertarian ideology, you may have heard little alarm bells going off here and there as you began watching, during the setup focusing on the autonomy of the original states, for example, or on the rise of the Federal Reserve Bank, the introduction of the income tax and so on. It might not surprise you to know that Vrabel, whose background is military, Harvard Business, Wall Street and Silicon Valley, has been published on some Libertarian-tinged websites, including SWARMUSA, Canada Free Press and LewRockwell.com (which I’ve written about here).
If I had known about those connections before I knew about his conversations with Max Keiser, I frankly might not have given Vrabel a listen at all. Such is the state of American discourse that so many of us–myself included, absolutely–box ourselves into (and other viewpoints out of) our repertoires of new knowledge based on mere association. In the highly complex state of knowledge and information distribution we’re faced with at this historic moment, having these prejudices can save us the time (and fury) that we might spend on ideas we’ve already rejected.
I found Vrabel interesting, however, because so much of what he says defies left-right categorization. He claims in one of the videos, in fact, that left-right is less important a political distinction in the face of the economic disaster we’re facing than big-small (and don’t think because “big” is to the left of the hyphen and “small” to the right that he aligns those ideas that way).
Vrabel describes himself in a bio on CFP as having had “two fairly different lives—one as an overachiever serving the financial empire, and another as a hopeful advocate for the victims of the empire: local community, indigenous population, the American republic, and the individual heart.” His interest in advocacy for the victims of empire is just one area where his sensibilities overlap with those of the left. He also happens to be influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, George Carlin (don’t laugh–seriously!), and back-to-the-land philosopher-poet Wendell Berry. The chief villains, if his story has villains, happen to include several of the economic chieftains of the post-Reagan Democratic Party–Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, Timothy Geithner. But they also include Alan Greenspan, Jamie Dimond, Lloyd Blankfein, and Henry Paulson. And only a rabidly Democratic partisan would want to defend Summers-Rubin-Geithner at this point, knowing what we know about their complicity in the disaster of 2008 and its aftermath.
I am taking such pains to point out this overlap to my fellow leftists (and to myself) because I don’t want us to miss the truths in Vrabel’s critique of empire, which is based on his first-hand knowledge of it as one of its servants, because of those other codewords and ideas associated with the right. Vrabel is not just some reactionary loon frothing over the Trilateral Commission–although, yes, that organization makes an appearance in his Renaissance 2.0 course, as does the Council on Foreign Relations and the New World Order. But I think he must have had some kind of conversion experience that has given him a transcendent perspective on the empire he says he served, and a lot of it sounds, as I say, like truth–in fact like truth relevant to the #occupy movement. How so?
In my last post, I cited anthropologist David Graeber, someone definitely of the left, talking about the people who are on the front lines in the #OWS movement: ““We are watching the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt.” Vrabel’s series explains very elegantly why this generation is starting out in severe debt: it’s because our economy runs on debt, which means almost nobody owns anything, and the debt the rest of us owe is getting deeper, faster. What we think we own, we actually only rent–our homes, cars, educations, utilities, anything bought on credit–and we work only to pay all that rent. Futhermore, our employers are in debt, our local banks are in debt, our government is in debt. And whom are we all in debt to? If you watched the George Carlin clip linked to above, you heard his wonderful line about “the real owners” of America: “It’s a big club–and you ain’t in it!”
It’s worth taking a closer look at Carlin’s rant, delivered during his 2006 HBO comedy special “Life Is Worth Losing.” He seems to have felt an urgency to get to the point with his audience. The material isn’t so much funny as painfully honest:
I’m talking about the real owners now… the real owners. The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget the politicians. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls. They got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear. They got you by the balls. They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying. Lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want. They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I’ll tell you what they don’t want. They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interest. You know something, they don’t want people that are smart enough to sit around their kitchen table and figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago.
Much of what Carlin says is echoed in Vrabel. Carlin’s rant paints the picture broadly; Vrabel’s online Renaissance course eruditely fills in the details. What they are describing is what Vrabel and many other economic thinkers call “neo-feudalism”–not free markets, not capitalism, not even crony capitalism–the real economic system Americans and more and more of the rest of the world are living under. It’s a society with power and wealth concentrated at the very top of the pyramid, where few reside; at the base are the teeming mass of the rest of us mere peasants. And I mean that literally! As Russ at Volatility says in a perceptive post on “the ideology of the 99 percent”:
Everywhere I look I see a convergence toward what I started saying over a year ago when I first pegged us as post-workers, incipient or actual “lumpenproles”. (I’ve recently written more about this.) Our mindset, our actual circumstances, and the possible modes of resistance and revolution are all more typical of the peasantry than the classic proletariat.
For all of my adult life–and this is certainly true for a lot of educated and self-educated Americans–I’ve seen this system as it is broadly described by Carlin, Vrabel, “Russ,” et al. I’ve cursed it and wished it away. When I was young, I looked vainly for signs of revolution against it. But as I got older and more settled, less hopeful, more jaded, I came to accept, more or less, the fact that the fat-assed American public was never going to rise up from their living room couches and revolt against their chains. They didn’t even see their chains, they were so busy watching prime time. Outside of sporadic participation in demonstrations and even a little local Democratic club politics, I became one of those fat-assed Americans myself, not exactly complacent, certainly not content, but well trained to feel helpless and isolated against the whole corrupt system.
I am now thinking the time was never right. Now it actually may be. The left and right, which have been trained to be at each others’ throats all these years, actually may be finding common ground around the mere description of what’s going on. We certainly should be able to, considering we are all peasants now. It only remains to stop sniping at each other over what are ultimately the irrelevancies of a sick system, look at what is really at stake, and unite against our common enemy.
We have nothing to lose but our debt.