Saturday, April 28, 2012

War and the Middle Class

I forget exactly how it came up in a recent discussion, but the theme, which offered all kinds of rich possibilities for insight, was the relationship between war and the middle class. But – you might say – isn't war something nations do? Isn't it, therefore, a collective, and therefore class-free, phenomenon? Right – tell it to the people who still believe that it was, by and large, the working class that provided the cannon fodder for the Vietnam war, since it was (1) larger in number, (2) more economically needy, and (3) had fewer defenses against the draft. I had no firm arguments against this at the time, and I've discovered none since.

The point is not that war is a conflict between the middle class of Country A and the middle class of Country B. And it's not simply that war is, by and large, something the ruling class comes up with and gets the lower classes to actually fight, with the political and financial support of the middle class. That is a good summing-up, but still misses many of the nuances.

What I find intriguing is the causal relationship between war and the entire class structure. Let's try and model the situation for a moment – remembering that models always tend to oversimplify. Take a country, nation, or society that has enjoyed peace for a considerable period of time – and, presumably, also a lack of other stressors like plague, famine, drought, natural disaster, etc. If this society is reasonably free – i.e. non-totalitarian and not overly socialistic – it will tend to have given rise to a middle class, i.e. a class of prosperous peasants (not a contradiction! “Peasant” simply refers to someone who farms, or works on the land. A peasant can be a millionaire.), skilled tradesmen, merchants, professionals of various sorts, middle managers, etc. And why is this? It's because a peaceful society tends to allow people, even on the lower economic levels, to produce more than they need for their own personal consumption. (Contrast this, for example, with the massive displacements of populations caused by war in places like sub-Saharan Africa, where people cannot even provide for their own survival needs since they have been separated from the land.) Plus, resources are kept at home and not squandered on war – said resources including young, able-bodied individuals. So people enter the marketplace and trade their surplus for someone else's surplus – or for goods and services they would not otherwise been able to afford... ones that are, one might say, invented in order to take advantage of increased wealth and surpluses. Hence we get the rise of a new class of goods and service providers, AKA the middle class. And, the ruling classes find that they want more than to sit in their fortresses overseeing a slave army – so they too wind up using the goods and services provided by this new class. Plus, economic freedom naturally leads to, or at least implies, downward distribution of political power (AKA subsidiarity), with the result that various ranks and levels of local, regional, and provincial government arise, along with an accompanying legal system, and these too are, by and large, made up of middle class individuals.

So this very roughly sketched-out and simplified model is what one might call the “peacetime model”. But what happens in times of war? Right away the ruling class – the warmakers (if not warfighters) – realizes that it needs more resources. So it taps the lower classes for manpower, which right away cuts down on the number of people who might be enjoying some measure of upward mobility through their labor... and it taps the middle classes for money, which makes everyone a bit poorer (and makes people at the lower levels of the middle class back into lower-class individuals). So there is an overall economic chilling effect, AKA (for propaganda purposes) “sacrifice” or “austerity” (but you'll notice the ruling class never seems to have to make any sacrifices of this sort). And if a war, or a series of wars, goes on long enough, we will see an erosion of the middle class – a decrease in its numbers as well as in its relative standard of living – which is likely to be permanent. For example, if you carefully study middle-class life styles prior to World War I – their homes, their clothing, their servants (!), etc. -- you will find a world that, basically, vanished with nary a trace, largely as a result of the “sacrifices” and economic displacements necessitated by the war. This was a true middle class – high enough on the scale to afford servants (who were from a true working class) but still no closer to the upper class than their descendants are today. (Small but telling example – my maternal grandfather's house, built right around the time of World War I, had a back staircase for the help. He was a small-town banker, and the house was no “McMansion”, but there was this staircase – which, by the time I came along, had long since been converted into storage space. They were, and remained, middle class – but what that meant had changed drastically. The entire economic structure of society had shifted, and the war had a lot to do with it, in my opinion.)

Now, you might say, “But! But! What about the fact that war creates millions of jobs... and what about the 'postwar prosperity boom', etc.?” Well – those millions of jobs are, number one, created at the expense of other goods and services (can you say “rationing”?). Number two, they extract a cost in the form of higher taxes and borrowing, AKA the national debt. And what does war, in turn, contribute in the way of goods and services? Nothing, really – unless you happen to deal in scrap metal. So I'm going to say that, despite appearances, war is always a net economic liability. True, it does have an energizing effect, and can get some people into the habit of working again... and it can serve as a kind of social mechanism to shame slackers and free-loaders. And, it can also stimulate people to either retrain or move to where the jobs are – more, even, than the Depression did. War is, after all, like any other government program, a jobs program. But if you want to contrast 1950s prosperity with the 1930s economic doldrums, you're going to have to come up with something besides World War II to convince me. I think the 1950s were prosperous despite the war, or – at best – as an unintended consequence. And after all, prosperity did not follow immediately on the heels of the war... and let's not forget that no sooner did we get back on our feet than the government got us involved in a new war, namely the one in Korea. So whenever you think that war contributes to prosperity, you have to ask, how much more prosperous would we have been if there had not been a war?

So I'm going to say that, in the long run, war is a detractor and a hindrance when it comes to a nation's economy – not to mention its politics, individual liberties, morale, self-image, and so on. And this is aside from the energizing effects of war, as mentioned above, opposed to the soporific effects of peace. Some people will always be lulled into semi-consciousness by peace and prosperity, and be shown the only real meaning in their lives by war. But I don't think we should let these types dominate our thinking. And I don't think we should be deceived by the rapidity with which some nations rebuild from the ruins of war. You can put up all the skyscrapers, superhighways, and malls you like, but it won't reduce the patient load in veterans' hospitals one iota... and neither will it repair the scars left on the “national psyche”. Wars create neurosis – in both people and in nations. We are still, in a sense, in the post-Vietnam era psychologically, in this country; the new novelties of wars elsewhere have not served to erase that trauma. And the novelties of future wars will not serve to erase the traumas of Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., which are already quite apparent. In that sense, “rebuilding” is an illusion, and a form of denial. It's a way of papering over a deeper reality – one which will only die when the last combatant dies, but not even then, as witness the lingering bitterness about the Civil War, 150 years later. Why is most history about war? Because war leaves a more permanent mark on a society, and on its people, than any other type of event – although plagues can come close, as was the case with the Black Death.

But now we come to the ironic part. If peace and freedom give rise to, and reinforce, the middle class, and if war serves to suppress the middle class economically... then you would think the middle class would be, by and large, anti-war and pro-peace. But the true case is just the opposite! Who was out there on the street protesting the war in Vietnam? The children of the middle class, yes – but not their parents. And those children have, since then, developed a strange new respect for war, as long as it's being led by a president of the correct political party. The other protesters were the more conscious and/or radical components of the lower/working class and minorities. They knew that the war was a scam, that it was all about business, and that they were being exploited, misused, and abused. “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger.” Crude, but it cut to the heart of the matter. The ruling class at the time was in it for – well, for money, as always... and also to expand the American empire, and for the sake of raw power. Oh, I suppose there was some sincere anti-communism in the mix, but I imagine the people for whom that was Job One were being duped and exploited by cynics.

But where were the “true believers” -- the real, live anti-communists – when it came to the war in Vietnam? The middle class, of course. They were the ones who voted for war over and over again – who never once expelled a politician from elective office for being too much of a warmonger – and who even sent their own sons off to fight, if it was really necessary. So we had the lower class – victimized by way of the draft as well as by the erosion of (and by) social programs – doing the heavy lifting for the ruling class, with the full political and economic (via taxation) support of the middle class. But did this mean that war was not damaging to the middle class – to its prosperity and, ultimately, to its liberties? Not at all. All the middle class got for their support of the war was higher taxes and a government increased in size many times over – the very things the “Tea Party” is demonstrating about in our time.

But that was Vietnam, right? Old news, right? After a brief period of self-flagellation, AKA the Carter administration, we got back down to the business of building the economy back up again, under Reagan, Bush I, and even Clinton. The middle class breathed the fresh air of... well, not freedom exactly, but at least superficial prosperity -- “superficial” because of the gathering storm of the housing bubble, savings and loan failures, the national debt, increased commitments overseas, the gradual turning of our political and economic sovereignty over to the Europeans, etc. And yet all seemed well... and it seemed that the Age of the Middle Class had returned – especially given that so many radical movements had been co-opted and neutralized by the government. “Black power”, La Raza, and radical feminism were like so many annoying but harmless gnats, or fading memories, in the sunshine days of the 1980s... and even the non-stop soap opera that was the Clinton administration was little more than harmless amusement (unless you were a Branch Davidian or a resident of Belgrade, etc.). Besides, by the early 1990s, the enemy we had known for so long – namely the Soviet Union – had dried up and blown away. That should have been good news, but instead it left a gap – an “enemy gap”. You see, an ideational society thrives not only on its own self-image as the best of all possible societies, but it also requires a dark side – a concept that “they hate us because of our freedoms” -- or because of our McMansions, or cable TV, or fast foods, or whatever. Materialistic, humanistic ideas can only thrive when contrasted with their supposed opposites – and not only contrasted, but entered into regular conflicts with people of other convictions. The Cold War was, first and foremost, a war of ideas – at least for (again) the middle class. (The lower classes weren't convinced that the Soviets didn't have a point – and the ruling class didn't care.) So an enemy gap gives rise to an idea gap – a period of uncertainty and doubt... and surely we can't have that. This is why the attacks of 9-11 were like unto manna from heaven – not that they were seen that way at the time, but they served to re-inspire the American middle class and give them a new cause, and a new crusade – a war on Islam! Finally a chance to get even for the Medieval Crusaders being unceremoniously booted out of the Near East! Am I saying that this was a conscious agenda (the way it might have been for the other side)? No – but the ancient meme was there, implanted in public school history classes for generations: Moslems are bad and evil people, and Islam is a bad religion. Communism – a pseudo-religion – had been conquered (more or less) through just waiting for it to self-destruct. Islam might be an even tougher nut to crack. But we can do it, because we've got good old American know-how, and a capability for self-sacrifice that would put the most ascetic monk to shame.

And thus was born the Next Great Cause of the American middle class – and the process, as always, was overseen, controlled, and manipulated by the cynical members of the Regime. They had the votes, the political support, and few would complain about taxes as long as they were going to fight “rag-heads” and not to support welfare queens. And who knows, the middle class might even cough up some military volunteers. But if not, no problem, we always have the proletariat, whose economic desperation readily pushes them into uniform.

But I say again – and the events since 9-11 offer overwhelming proof – war is bad for the middle class (and “other living things”, if you like). What were the Tea Party protesters protesting? Whether they knew it or not, they were protesting the political and economic impact of perpetual war. If you had asked any one of them if they were pro-war or not, you would have gotten a dollop of the same old Neocon pap – but the connection is there, whether they realize it or not. In the long run – if you exchange every old war with a new one, in perpetuity – what you're going to wind up with is the gradual extinction of the middle class... and this is aside from domestic policy and taxation. You will wind up with a warring state on the ancient or Medieval model – with a ruling elite and an army of slaves, with very little in between. You will wind up with, in a sense, a military model of society, which is what the ancient world seems to have specialized in. And yet this model is being aided and abetted by none other than the people who have the most to lose.

So the bottom line – for the time being, at least – is that each succeeding war causes the middle class to lose ground... and they are lucky if they manage to make it up before the next war comes along – a war which they, undoubtedly, will do everything they can to support. But this is based on a model in which war and peace are cyclic. What we have now, since World War II and especially since 9-11, is a perpetual war model, where no sooner do we conclude (more or less) hostilities in one country than we initiate them somewhere else. And it is this model which virtually assures the destruction of the middle class – and this process is already underway, as can be readily seen. The Tea Partiers are right about that much. What they are mistaken about is how things came to this pass, and the extent to which it's their own fault.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

“Why despair, if everything is in God's hands?”

Thus, a recent gentle criticism of a major theme of my blog posts, which seems to be that it's, basically, too late – that the salvation of this country – its economy, its culture – will come only with the complete collapse of the current system. Or – if you agree with my theory that American sovereignty is already a thing of the past, and we are now slaves of an international banking and business cartel – it will come only with the complete collapse of that cartel, which seems a pipe dream, since it is clearly becoming more powerful every day (as witness recent events in Europe regarding national debt bailouts). It seems to me that the most likely near- and mid-term future for America, and for Americans, is that we're fated to be unwitting slaves of “higher powers” -- powers for whom our own home-grown “leaders” are no more than glorified servants. I believe that the evidence for this is overwhelming, and that more accumulates with each passing day. Americans are no longer masters of their fate – and their leaders aren't either. They serve at the pleasure of the Regime, or the cartel, or the cabal – whatever you want to call it – and as long as they serve faithfully, they retain their pathetically superficial “perks” and signs of power. Once their effectiveness goes into decline, however, they are tossed aside like so much used toilet paper. This is their fate, and I must say that it's richly deserved, since their actions amount to no less than treason.

So it's true – my commentaries seem to counsel despair, in that I believe things have progressed (if that is the word) far beyond any hope of cure within the system. And when cures within the system become impossible, one normally turns to, or waits for, cures without the system – apocalyptic ones like war, famine, and pestilence, or political/military ones like revolution or conquest by a foreign power. (Note that we have already been “conquered” by a foreign power, economically speaking – namely China.) After all, it was Russian military failures in the early stages of World War I that, arguably, rang a death knell on the czarist empire... and Germany's defeat in World War I set the stage for the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. It would seem that, most of the time, revolution, as opposed to evolution, winds up making things worse than they were before... or maybe it's just that the advantage is handed to different people – i.e., the ones who wind up writing the approved history books. Clearly, someone is always better off as the result of a revolution or other catastrophe than they were before – but those “someones” tend to be vicious, plotting schemers, not ordinary folk. Anyone, for example, who thinks the Russian peasant wound up better off after the Bolshevik revolution than he was before has got some reading to do. But the rule stands – namely that someone always profits, someone always benefits. And this is true in the present case as well. Goldman Sachs executives are happier than pigs in stuff right now – as are armaments makers and anyone else who is profiting from the current round of insanity and criminality.

So the “conventional wisdom” (as opposed to the reality) about revolutions are that they are usually good things... and the conventional wisdom about wars, famines, pestilences, etc., are that, while unpleasant at the time, they can have (paradoxically, at least) positive results. (Where is the “zero population growth” fanatic who is not secretly pleased every time he hears about a famine, or civil war, or plague, in Africa?) And I suppose that, without the world-wide revolutions that began in France and extended (over 150-odd years) all the way to China, we would not have had the opportunity to see what socialism, communism, collectivism, and totalitarianism amounted to in terms of net benefit to mankind. As it is, ideas that should have wound up on the ash heap decades ago are still alive and well, thanks mostly to human fallibility and concupiscence. Each new generation, it seems, has to learn anew that the pipe dreams of secular humanism are no more than that – and that they are destructive of the human spirit as well as of mind and body. When young people complain about the grayness, dullness, and conventionality of ordinary life and ordinary people, what they are complaining about is, by and large, the effects of socialism. They are living in a society in which most people, on a deep level, are paralyzed with fear. (Ironically, they may think that socialism is the answer to these complaints!) We hear a lot about “dumbing down”, “leveling”, and the (misnamed) “lowest common denominator”; these are all symptoms of socialism and collectivism. More than symptoms, actually – they are active, conscious pieces of the agenda. The idea is to create a gulf, on all dimensions, between the controllers and the controlled – and no one is a better exemplar of this than Our President, who, with his modest and unconventional background, has ascended to the heights (with the help of the Regime) and now delights in lording it over the peasantry. One could say that he has forgotten his “roots”, but I suspect that, in fact, he has no real roots. He was born on the road, one might say – in transit. So he fits into any situation, but is at home in none. Maybe that makes him an ideal leader for our time, I don't know. But it is certain that he is as far from ordinary people and their concerns and values as the east is from the west.

So while I may counsel what seems to be despair – in the short- and mid-term – I'm perfectly willing to say “all is well” in the ultimate sense. I believe in divine justice, but I also believe that God is long-suffering... too long, in the opinion of those who want to see fire rain down from Heaven on the unjust before the night is over. Religion typically counsels patience, and waiting on God's pleasure; politics counsels impatience and impulsiveness. And when you combine the two, well... then you get the Evangelicals, who want nothing more than to accelerate the timetable for the “end times” by getting us to fall on our sword for Israel. They spend every waking hour nagging God to get on with it, and then proceed to ignore most of what the New Testament teaches.

And it may work, in a twisted kind of way. If our exertions on behalf of Israel wind up destroying our military (well underway) and our economy (very well underway) and our morale and self-respect (very well underway), we will eventually collapse, and then it will be Israel against the entire Arab/Islamic world... and even if they do fire off all of their nukes, I think it will be a suicide gesture on their part. So maybe the prophesies about the end times will, in fact, be aided and abetted by our foolish actions, who knows? Crazier things have happened down through history. (Think of all the examples in the Bible where something bad led to something good. This almost seems to be a kind of rule of history.)

So, in the light of all this, I say again – why bother? Well, it's not just because we deserve a better world than the one our leaders are providing us. There is such a thing as salvific suffering, and I think we're about to get many more opportunities to experience that than we have in a long time. But there is also the human mind and the human spirit, both of which thrive on truth, and grow sickly and die with a constant diet of lies, deceptions, and con games. Even to march to the gallows knowing the truth would be preferable to sitting on silk cushions in a state of delusion, it seems to me. The besetting sin of Americans in our time is not that they are fat and lazy – although there is plenty of that. It's that they are morally negligent and intellectually slothful; in other words, they simply refuse to use their brains for anything other than base activities and ephemeral amusements. The, um, “literature” available at grocery store check-out lines should be enough to convince you of this. And I don't expect people to be, or want to be, “intellectuals” -- heaven forbid! All I ask is the occasional thought based on reality rather than fancy... the occasional use of logic... the occasional sobering meditation on the Four Last Things (or if that sounds too abstract, then how about the dangers of empire?). People in the past were no smarter than we are, in terms of innate intellectual ability – but they had better intellectual habits, and better life habits. They had a level of independence and integrity that is almost inconceivable in our time – and yet we continue to benefit from their thoughts and actions. We benefit, but since we know not where those benefits come from we have no immunity against the people who are determined to take them away. And sure enough, the erosion of liberties in our time is nearly complete; in other words, we are living in what amounts to a totalitarian society, even though the way it is manifested is, for most people most of the time, “low-impact”. The government could do more to us, but usually doesn't; I don't consider this a compliment. “Soft” socialism – or, more properly, fascism – is still socialism. Soft tyranny is still tyranny. There is nothing in principle preventing the government, on any level, from turning up the heat; the fact that they don't is a testimony to a kind of pragmatism and nothing more.

So the truth really will set us free – intellectually and spiritually if not physically or economically... and that is what the saying means anyway. We must still “render unto Caesar” every April 15 (and most days in between), and we are still subject to countless restrictions on our actions. But “mind control” is still... well, let's say it remains on a voluntary basis. If a person wants to become an unthinking, unblinking, brain-dead clone of the Regime and the mainstream media, opportunities abound. But no one is forced into that situation against their will. And while I detest mob rule and the tyranny of the majority, it is still gratifying to, on occasion, encounter kindred souls – the way partisans would encounter each other in the dark of night in a World War II movie. To be truly a lone thinker – a prophet without honor, and even without a listener (or reader!) must be a trying thing. And yet, even then, it would be better to stand on the shore and shout at the waves than to remain silent.

And if the truth has intrinsic value, regardless of “results” -- and if that value is amplified in a gathering of like minds – is that the only reason for speaking out? It might be if we were sticking to a strictly materialistic model, but what if we adhere to a moral model as well? What if our politics is predicated, as much as possible, on moral principles and not only on ethical concepts (as noble as they can be)? And furthermore, what if our moral principles include not only concepts as to what ought to be done – let's say in the name of charity – but of what ought to be done in the name of faith? And what if we believe that our very salvation may be at stake depending on decisions we make in what appears to be a totally material, secular political realm? There is, then, value – infinite value, perhaps – in trying to conform our political actions (including words) to moral principles. And what if we believe that it might also be possible to save, or at least be an occasion of grace for, others based on our words and actions? What if their salvation is at stake as well as our own?

Now I know that this sounds a bit grandiose... but think for a moment. What if, for example, we could convert enough people to the Just War teachings of the Catholic Church? It would result in a complete reformulation of our foreign policy... and, most likely, doom the Republican Party (and who can say that's a bad thing?). And how about abortion – an issue where souls are at stake (not the souls of the victims but the souls of the perpetrators and their facilitators)? This would seem to be a most urgent piece of business... and simple charity would dictate that the truth be told, and repeated as often as need be. These are very straightforward issues requiring no egghead, intellectual, wonkish ruminations or advanced degrees. They are things, in short, that nearly everyone can understand – and there are plenty more similar issues. In fact, I would venture to say that all the really important political and economic issues can be made understandable to the average person, despite what the “experts” would have us believe. And it goes without saying that mistaken beliefs, and grievous errors, are not confined to the masses, but are almost a specialty of the intellectual elite.

So yes, there are plenty of good reasons to speak up, and not to remain silent, cowed, and fearful. There can be hope behind apparent despair. Pure cynicism and misanthropy are one thing – but has anyone ever accused any of the saints of those failings? I don't think so. The wildest, wild-eyed preacher on the street corner may ultimately have the good of mankind at heart, even if everything he says sounds like a Jeremiad. Is he more “negative” than the guy who sits at a cafe table all day sipping espresso and not offering a coherent opinion on anything? I think that despair – true despair – is the ultimate negativity. But simply living during a time of decline and fall of an empire is an accident of personal history – and pointing it out may well be a duty.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Excerpt of the Month

When I become Death, Death is the seed from which I grow...

Who really gave that order?

ANSWER: Control. The ugly American, the instrument of control.

QUESTION: If Control's control is absolute, why does Control need to control?

ANSWER: Control needs time.

QUESTION: Is Control controlled by its need to control?


(Q) Why does Control need humans, as you call them?

(A) Weight, weight, time - a landing field. Death needs time like a junkie needs junk.

(Q) And what does Death need time for?

(A) The answer is so simple. Death needs time for what it kills to grow in...

... you stupid, vulgar, greedy, ugly American death sucker.

We have a new type of rule now. Not one-man rule or rule of aristocracy or plutocracy, but of small groups elevated to positions of absolute power by random pressures and subject to political and economic factors that leave little room for decision. They're representatives of abstract forces who have reached power through surrender of self.

The iron-willed dictator is a thing of the past. There will be no more Stalins, no more Hitlers. The rulers of this most insecure of all worlds are rulers by accident – inept, frightened pilots at controls of a vast machine they cannot understand, calling in experts to tell them which buttons to push.

--- From “Ah Pook Is Here” by William S. Burroughs