THE BLOG
04/04/2013 02:29 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2013

The Triumph of Plutocracy

The ultimate achievement of a plutocracy is to legitimize itself by fixing in the minds of society the idea that money is the measure of all things. It represents achievement, it is the sine qua non for giving people the material things they want. It is the gauge of an individual's worth. It is the mark of status in a status anxious culture. That way of seeing the world is now pervasive in the United States. Indeed, it has strongly influenced the outlook of the past two Democratic presidents as well as George Bush. Their public policy preferences and rhetoric confirm that judgment. Therein lies the quiet revolution that has been transforming how the country does or does not address most critical of our collective needs.

It is Obama who, at the height of the financial meltdown, lauded Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein as "savvy businessmen." It is Obama who eagerly became Dimon's golfing buddy. It was Obama who placed the power to shape and implement a national strategy to deal with the great financial crisis and its aftermath in the hands of its authors and executants. It was Bill Clinton who celebrated deregulation, the same Bill Clinton who has been flying the world in corporate jets for the past twelve years. It is the two of them who promoted Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles to lead the extraordinary panel that lead the charge against Social Security. That is plutocracy as a bipartisan reality. That phenomenon explains its peculiar dynamic and striking success.

The American version of plutocracy is noteworthy for its crassness. Subtlety, discretion and restraint are foreign to it. It has a buccaneering quality to it. That style has roots in the country's history and culture. Much of the behavior is impulsive, grasping. Individuals are greedy for vivid displays that they are top dog, of what they can get away with, as well as the riches themselves. There is little interest in building anything that might endure - no 'new order,' no new party, no new institutions. Not even physical monuments to themselves. Why bother when the existing set-up works so well to your advantage, to that of your like-minded and like-interested associates - when you can turn ideas, policies and money in your direction with ease. And while the public is blind to how they are being deluded and abused. After all, the more things appear to stay the same, the more they can change in a country whose civic ideology imbues everyone with the firm belief that its principles and institutions embody a unique virtue. To challenge any of that would be to run the risk of raising consciousness - which is the last thing that the plutocrats want.

Furthermore, the moving forces of the plutocracy are not very organized. There is no conspiracy as such. It is the convergence of outlook among disparate persons in different parts of the system that has accomplished the reactionary transformation in American public life, public discourse, and public philosophy. Nobody had to indoctrinate Barack Obama in 2008-2009 or intimidate him or bribe him. He came to the plutocrats on his own volition with his mind-set and values already in conformity with the plutocracy's view of itself and of America. This was man, after all, who cited Ronald Reagan as model for what sort of presidency American needed. He was living proof of how effectively Americans had been brought into line with the plutocratic vision.

This is not to say that the plutocrats' success was inevitable - or that they were diabolically clever in manipulating everything and everyone to their advantage. There has been a strong element of good fortune in their victory. Their most notable piece of luck has been the ineptitude and shortsightedness of their potential opposition - liberal Democrats, intellectuals, and their like. They pursued their goals is a disorganized, diffuse way. However, the absence of an opponent on the contested terrain assured success.

As to cleverness, the American plutocracy is actually a 'stupid plutocracy'. For one thing, it is overreaching. Far better to leave a few goodies on the table for the 99 percent and even a few crumbs for the 47 percent than to risk generating resentment and retaliation. Since the financial meltdown, financial and business interests have been unable to resist picking the pockets of the weak. Fishing out the small change in the wake of grand larceny is rubbing salt into wounds. Why fight a small rise in the minimum wage? Why ruthlessly exploit all those temps and part-timers who have so little in the way of economic power anyway? Why squeeze every last buck from the small depositors and credit card holders whom you already systematically fleece? In the broad perspective, that sort of behavior is stupid.

To explain it, we must look to the status compulsions of America's audacious corporate freebooters. These peculiar traits grow more intense the higher one goes in the hierarchy of riches. One is the impulse to show to everybody your superiority by displaying what you can get away with. "Sharp dealing" always has been prized by segments of American society. It's the insecure man who prove to himself that he can act with impunity - little different from the hoodlum showing off to his moll. These people at heart are hustlers - they crave the thrill of pulling off a scam, not constructing something. Hence, Lloyd Blankfein not showing up for White House meetings yet having Obama thank him for letting the president know, albeit after the meeting already had begun, that Blankfein can't make it. Hence, Jamie Dimon indignantly protesting his verbal mistreatment by the press, by the White House, by whomever. Then there is Jack Welch, the titan of American industry who struts sitting down, who holds the Guinness record for the most manufacturing jobs outsourced by one company - and yet impudently calls Barack Obama "anti-business" after the president appoints his hand-picked successor, Jeffrey Immelt, to head the White House's Job Council. Or Bank of America's faking compliance with the sweetheart deal it got from Obama on the felonious foreclosure scam. The ultimate episode of egregious lawlessness is the MF Global affair - whereby under its chief, former senator and governor Jon Corzine, this hedge fund took the illegal action of looting a few billion from custodial accounts to cover losses incurred in its proprietary trading. JPMorgan, which held MF Global funds in several accounts and also processed the firm's securities trades, resisted transferring the funds to MF's customers until forced to by legal action. Punitive action: none. Why? The Justice Department and regulatory bodies came up with the lame excuse that the groups decision-making was so opaque that they could not determine whose finger clicked the mouse. To pull fast ones like these and get off scot free, without chastisement, is the ultimate ego trip.

Willie Sutton, the notorious bank robber of the 1940s, explained his targeting banks this way: "That's where the money is." Today's financial swindlers go after the high risk gambles because that's where the biggest kicks are. That is more important than the biggest bucks. For the ever status striving, identity insecurity, financial baron is a compulsive. He needs his fixes. Of winning, of celebrity, of respect. All are transitory, though. For American culture provides few insignia of rank. No 'Sirs,' no seats in the House of Lords, no rites of passage that separate the heralded elite from all the rest. Oblivion shadows the most famous and acclaimed. Thus, the grasping for whatever insignia of respect are within reach - however ludicrous they might be. When IR Magazine awarded JPMorgan the prize for "best crisis management" of 2012 for its handling of the London Whale trading debacle, at a black-tie awards ceremony in Manhattan, Morgan executives were there to express their appreciation, rather than bow out gracefully. The only Wall Street personage who has played the celebrity game without being marginalized in the public mind is Robert Rubin. Through nimbleness and political connection has semi-institutionalized his celebrity status. Yes, there is Paul Volcker - but that is another world all together. His stature is built on an unmatched record of service to the commonweal and unchallenged integrity. The Blankfeins and Dimons and Welchs not only lack the critical attributes - they also lack the sense of what it means to serve the public from which they habitually distance themselves.

Americans have a craving to believe in their own virtue - as well as to have others recognize it. The perverse pride in beating the system does not in and of itself compensate for the feeling that you're a bad guy. America praises the hard-nosed and tough-minded - but not the S.O.B. Blankfein again, claiming he's "doing God's work." No one laughs in public - so I'm right about that. And the Financial Times pronounces me 2008's Man of the Year. Dimon striding through the Council On Foreign Relations or Brookings with the huddled masses in his audience - and on the dais - beaming their adulation as they bask in his fame and thirst for his wisdom on the great affairs of the world. What are his credentials for shedding light on those great global issues? Perhaps, his views on whether the BRICS will be in a position to rig the LIBOR rate with the connivance of the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve - or ignore regulatory reporting rules when they threaten to reveal a madcap scheme that loses $6 billion? Authority is in the eye of the beholder. Whom we behold is a token of who we are.

Does this sort of perverse pride go before the fall? No sign of that happening yet. Plutocracy in America is more likely to be our destiny.