Crib Notes on Late Capitalism

A glimpse beneath the false consensus

Gordon Gekko, the fictitious corporate raider so memorably personified by Michael Douglas in Wall Street, lectured an assemblage of investors and flaccid board members with this eye-opening burst of insight:

The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.

Gekko cut to the core of capitalism. He unclothed its essence, he upvoted its pseudo-scientific rationale, and he recognized its dominion over America. We should know by now, all these years and a Great Recession later, that sociopathic late capitalism reduces all morality to a single ethic: increase profits. At any cost. By any means necessary. And always as at a faster pace with fewer hands involved in the assembly, one day to be as seamlessly automated as it is amoral. Even when a throng of angry workers rise up and startle the bourgeoisie from its dogmatic slumber, the subsequent concessions are often piecemeal and temporary. As soon as they are implemented, the animated masses slip back into their consumer coma, and a cadre of capitalist purists, furiously underlining quotes in their laissez faire bibles, begin a massively financed rollback. Without round-the-clock vigilance by a perpetually agitated electorate, the restoration of unchecked plunder seems inevitable. Today that process of unchecked plunder is in full swing. It feels like late capitalism, an exhausted time when the rhetorical salves that once hid the gruesome core of exploitation, have lost their power, revealed as empty platitudes. Late capitalism is perhaps an era unfettered by regulatory regimes or unified labor, in which manufacturing has fled abroad, financialization is pre-eminent, bureaucracies enable blame-shifting and abdication of responsibility at the highest levels, where personal finances are credit-fueled, debt deflation cannibalizes income, and there is no sacred ground that is not ripe for commodification. And crucially, an era in which brutal economic and military aggression has become normalized. Wars are no longer historically bookended epochs, but quotidian realities for millions that live in the crosshairs of imperial greed. A few notes on our present reality and the ways in which we cloak it behind comforting facades:

Acceptable Casualties: What are the consequences of that rollback? Brutal corporate raiding, to be sure, of the Gekko variety. And strip-mining private equity firms like Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital. And supercharged offshoring kingpins like General Electric. But also extrajudicial murder. Assassinations. Indefinite detention. Saturation bombing. Backing coup d’états birthed at midnight on a distant Maidan. Funding jihadi terrorists in faux uprisings in drought-stricken border towns. Green-lighting neo-Nazi fascists in jackboots with Bandera flags held aloft. Stationing a fleet of drones above the clouds over Yemen, their 24-hour buzz reminding powerless villagers below that their futures and funerals are separated by a hair’s breadth. Launching Tomahawk missiles and flying sorties to destroy legitimate government forces as al-Qaeda terrorists advance toward Tripoli. Enabling a longtime leader’s death by rape in a featureless dune outside of Sirte. Parading tanks and Humvees down the roads of Eastern Europe, shadowing the frontiers of Russia with the clustered muzzles of their long artillery. And, of course, rolling out all the domestic austerities that they pretend must be cut to pay for our protection. And don’t forget jerry-rigging pensions to implode thanks to naive derivative bets placed by deluded municipalities. All to make a quick buck, protect a currency regime, or pulverize resistance to western dominion over MENA energy resources. But that’s just at the national level. On the individual level, the profits system is protected and reinforced and expanded using torture, including simulated drowning and anal rape (Abu Ghraib), slaughtering villagers (Vietnam, Nicaragua), shameless genocide (see history of Native Americans), rampant slavery (see history of African Americans), sending armed terrorists into sovereign nations with the intention of total ruin (Syria, Libya, Nicaragua), and numberless other particularized forms of cruelty against men and women. One of our former arbiters of torture is now assuming command of the CIA, her suburban soccer mom pose pacifying the tired assemblage of corporate supplicants in Congress.

The Pall of Good Intentions: All of this to secure profits (variously euphemized as power, wealth, resources, influence, liquidity, reserve currency, etc.). Of course, these acceptable consequences are acceptable because they can be written off as bad judgment or mistakes. Lapses in foresight. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. As national mythologist Ken Burns’ sagacious narrator purred in The Vietnam War, “It was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings.” This rancid preface is enveloped in the amniotic afterbirth of every act of imperial violence, a postscript rationalization. One can imagine the wizened faces of imperial stormtroopers asking with incredulous naiveté, “What happened?” The Burns documentary is artfully presented, with a master’s touch, and dropped deep into the fog of war from which we can comfortably resolve, “…in war, there is no single truth.” Thus the resolution is no resolution at all. Judgment is judiciously reserved. What cannot be swept under the carpet or plausibly denied, can be amplified into total confusion, confounding even the most discerning observer. In the final analysis, there is no one to blame.

It’s the System! When ill-conceived choices don’t suffice, the blame can be offloaded onto the system itself. As automation in warfare improves, expect more of the moral blame to be shifted to technological malfunctions rather than human error. AI may play in war the same role bureaucracy plays in consumer capitalism, the abdication of responsibility. Remember the middle manager mantra: “Sorry, but that decision is above my pay grade.” This is the requisite assumption of bureaucratic capitalism and the reason why the abdication of responsibility and subterfuge of false historical narratives are so important to the capitalist system. It cannot be conceded that profitability is valued above human life. When such charges are leveled at imperial capital, blame for such inhumane values must be placed on the system, while individuals are set scot free. No major bankers were jailed for the bank-generated mortgage meltdown. No major government figures were jailed for their role in sanctioning torture and war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a consequence, a torturer now runs the CIA and banks have leveraged their derivative bets beyond 2008 levels. Obama launched the largest covert CIA operation since Afghanistan in Syria, ultimately generating the cauldron that displaced half the country and killed half a million. But his staunchest defenders will swiftly lift the accusations from their paladin’s slim shoulders, dust off his lapels, and deposit the blame squarely on the monolithic system itself. No one is powerful enough, therefore no one bears responsibility. Given the casuistry of capital, it any wonder then that the wages of capitalism are so often death?

Capital Fight, Capital Flight: Most of us don’t think of wars as capitalist wars. But what else are they? The United States has established bases inside of Syria’s predominantly oil-rich Kurdish region. That war itself began, conspicuously, not long after Bashar Al-Assad opted to back a gas line built with Russia and Iran over one involving Qatar and Turkey. Wars against Iraq and Libya were both conspicuously ramped up not long after those nations floated the idea of abandoning the US petro-dollar. And you know how temporary installations morph into permanent occupations. Baghdad’s Green Zone didn’t start out as a Bellagio-on-the-Tigris, but soon became a permanent encampment, even if it is now euphemistically named, “the international zone.” Military contractors still have a considerable presence there (surely cheered by the citizenry) and the American wrecking crew has whittled its official footprint to world’s largest ‘embassy’ cum occupation zone. Iraq, too, was a resource war, and yet is not generally grasped as a distinctively capitalist conflict. But the only apparent alternative to foreign exploitation in a rent-seeking system is capital flight.

Savagery as Security: The evidence of bloody exploitation is all around us, but most of it beyond our borders and across abyssal seas most of us have never crossed. Hence the worthlessness of this system of plunder for the majority is better grasped by people living outside the walls of our doctrinal system. People living in the 57 countries we’ve attempted to overthrow since WWII. People living in occupied territories, alongside the 800 military bases we’ve flung like a net across the planet. People living beneath the drone arsenals that float in the sky, or those in nations that suffered the 51,000 bombs President Obama let drop in the final two years of his presidency. These acts are all, suffice it to say, forms of aggression defined as defensive measures. Obama was thus the perfect avatar of imperial conquest, a man who neither seemed capable of anger or interested in expansion. Unlike snarling Dick Cheney and more akin to soothing Bill Clinton, Obama provided the necessary update on Jesse Jackson’s candidacy in 1984 and 1988, tweaking the persona from that of an impassioned African-American decidedly on the side of the working class to one of a cross-class unifier who healed divisions with a kind of amiable centrism. And so Obama and the Democratic Party merely inhabited the emptied husks of progressivism, while embodying in practice the regressive rollback of worker advances.

Domestic Digs: Evidence may be bloodier abroad, but the wages of capitalist globalization have also been coming home to roost for some time. The millions of middle class jobs exported abroad to line the coffers of rich shareholders and impoverish the sad ledgers of working men and women. If there is a definition of the word ‘sellout,’ it ought to sit astride the logos of companies like GE, Walmart, Nike, JP Morgan, Lockheed Martin, and Halliburton. Hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers have committed suicide thanks to the ‘liberalization’ of markets, permitting western multinationals to savagely undercut subsistence farmers in nations like India, and deliberately drives them into urban slums to fortify the surplus army of cheap labor available to faceless capital. Now New York taxi drivers are killing themselves, unable to continue working 16 hour days for ever-declining wages while mobile sweatshops like Uber and Lyft lobby for deregulation, undercut the wages of the entire industry, and hire a multicultural new CEO with a kindly face who softly promises helpful innovation for all. Capitalists fear a falling rate of profit, but care nothing for the falling rate of wages. As Marxist geographer David Harvey said, capitalism will cannibalize the source of its own wealth–something no PR campaign can cure. Every revenue stream will be bled dry. Harvey also said capitalism’s current form, a viciously anti-state neoliberalism, is a conscious project of class restoration, a war on workers by elite shareholders looking to restore their class privilege, despite their role as a parasitic rentier class that induces debt deflation in the larger economy. If labor mis-attributes its travails to personal inadequacies, it likewise misses the fact that it is under attack. Labor is kept afloat through credit, with student, credit card, mortgage, and auto debts all swelling past the trillion-dollar threshold in the U.S. With that increase in debt come obvious corollaries: the one percent grabbed 95 percent of the overhyped recovery in America, while the overlapping global one percent will own two-thirds of all wealth by 2030.

Class Blinders: In practice, capitalism is primarily about the freedom of the rich to exploit the poor. That’s what Barack Obama signaled to elite constituencies when he campaigned for president, a willingness to either look the other way or facilitate exploitation. Even if he believed the lofty rhetoric he ventriloquized through his Ivy League education. Donald Trump may perhaps be a bit more aware that capitalism is red in tooth and claw. But like Gekko, he merely recites the tiresome credos of Social Darwinism, the naturalistic fallacy that conservatives and ambitious financiers never stop falling for. It may be the only method of rationalizing their success as the product of their intrinsic talents, rather than a stroke of fortune delivered by a confection of birth, breeding, temperament, and natural ambition. Marx was right when he proposed a materialist conception of history. Our circumstances do shape our consciousness. The rich have been taught to take credit for their successes and externalize responsibility for their failures. A tireless work ethic provides the moral backdrop to every Fortune 500 profile, but for every bankruptcy, regulation and taxation are reviled. On the flip side, the elite media never tires of conditioning the poor to do the reverse: self-indict for their failures and thank affirmative action and America for their successes. Read Adam Johnson on “perseverance porn,” the celebration of disenfranchised peasants who endure intolerable conditions. As such, too often the exploited blame themselves for their exploitation, and the exploiters blame the system for their failures (the system they rely upon in times of crises).

Money Never Sleeps: No matter, Gordon Gekko had it right. Greed is good–for the one percent. After all, they seem to be the only ones benefiting from institutionalized cupidity of imperial capitalism, for which all are blameless but from which only a handful may benefit. That its unchecked bacchanalia came to a juddering halt in Mesopotamia has bedeviled the plutocrats at the helm of the global capitalism. Their loyal serfs in the military-financial complex have demonstrated alarming judgment since the Syrian conflict began. The plutocrats surely fear their unipolar moment is being threatened by a poker-faced piker in the Kremlin and his infuriatingly refined ally in Damascus. The nervous frenzy in the western media only reflects the disturbed priorities of the corporate state. Perhaps the only question left appears to be whether Washington will make good on its implicit wish to use small nukes to salvage its hegemony, or strategize a more successful use of criminal sanctions, proxy forces and soft coups to redraw the balance of power to their liking. Either choice will entail not only decimation abroad but vacuuming more taxes from social need into metastasizing budgets that fuel military aggression and police a restive homeland. Peace and prosperity are not in the cards. As the infamous Margaret Thatcher said of capital’s creed: “There is no alternative.”

Jason Hirthler is a writer, strategist, and 15-year veteran of the communications industry. He has written for many political communities. He lives and works in New York City. He can be reached at: jasonhirthler@gmail.com. Read other articles by Jason.