21st century politics: Circus for the masses

May 12, 2015 11:19 AM (UTC+8)

 

By Reuven Brenner

Even if Peter Schweizer’s “Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich,” will prove to be just partially in the ballpark, and even if the transactions he lists would not amount to explicit violations of laws and regulations, the events he describes hardly pass either the smell test of accountability or of that old-fashioned word, no longer used these days, not in the U.S., not much of Asia (Japan is an exception), not Europe  – “honor.”

The media has been one of those institutions that in the past in the U.S. or other decentralized countries were in charge of reminding political and legal institutions of their accountability, and occasionally honor too.  Somehow the media, as well as the political institutions, lost this ability.  Many now accuse the – quote – “liberal press,” Hollywood and academia of complacency in this regard, with respect to the episodes surrounding the Clintons in particular.  However imprecise and impressionistic, at times inadvertently, and much before our times, great writers offer deeper insights into how such decline can happen, gradually, imperceptibly.

In one of his essays, George Bernard Shaw once asked “have you ever wondered why I am a Communist?”  His tongue-in-cheek answer was “Well, it is largely because of my sense of the great importance of leisure in civilized society.”

Indeed, think about it: time is needed to read books, be they about literature or science; absorb Mao’s little Red Book; watching movies; surfing the net; going to Church or political gatherings.  But, Shaw added, for this leisure time to be effectively used – and presumably he meant by this reading his plays, or go and see them being performed, people must be “informed, trained and disciplined.”  If not, then, according to Shaw, the result is just the opposite: a society emerges that will be wholly  sterilized “for cultural purposes as if you brought them up to work as slaves to the limit of human endurance without any effective leisure at all.”  The outcome then is “that the little religion and art, literature and science we can obtain, are frightfully corrupt” – a prediction that appears in the ballpark for once communist countries, Asian or European.

Workers become too tired and the “idlers” – Shaw’s term for the members of the “cultural and academic” industries – after being educated “to loathe education, culture, literature and everything suggestive of intellect, use their freedom from toil to cultivate the art of amusing themselves or letting other people amuse them.”

It appears that Shaw anticipated, inadvertently perhaps, features of both communist countries as well as these days’ declining education in Western schools and universities, where “dead white men,” himself included, got pushed to footnotes; where students get credentials for walking around with mattresses on their back (at Columbia University), or awarded Ph.D.s for a Dadaist joke: a 52,438 word essay on architecture, with no periods, no commas, no semi-colons, no upper case and no paragraphs (at University of British Columbia).  David Mamet, considered one of today’s great U.S. playwrights, deplores the decline in his recent “Secret Knowledge.”  People in such societies, Shaw and Mamet conclude, use their leisure to amuse themselves or let others merely amuse them.  “The result,” Shaw adds, is, among others, “the great anti-culture of sports.”

Delusions are powerful when they serve one’s interests.  Perhaps it is not surprising then that a majority of actors, singers, academics, authors, journalists and non-secular priesthoods happen to be on the “left.”

To sell their ware, their customers need time above all, as entertainment options on the Net are getting cheaper by the day.  While policies such as less incentives to work overtime (consider France), or pursue entrepreneurial opportunities, impoverish people, Shaw is right stating that people end up with more leisure.  But he is mistaken when speculating that these impoverished people, with little hope of having better lives, would then immerse themselves in Aristotle, Darwin, Shakespeare, Mozart or the Bible.  It is more likely that they will be bored to death, and bury their hopelessness in alcohol (as they did under communism), drugs (as they have done in other societies) or, if legal to hand out large prizes to start with, in gambling, the latter being the only non-political option for bettering lives on Earth.  And what types of religions they would bet on: who knows?  Boredom is the source of much vice.  No wonder communist parties wanted to prevent such outcome with much forced marching.

There isn’t even a contradiction between being multi-millionaire actors, artists, and other rich members of the “cultural industry” in the West and their recommendations to limit option of the hoi-polloi, when testifying in favor of raising taxes, of redistributing wealth, and advocating a never ending list of government programs filled with bureaucrats remedying all society’s ills.  For all I know, they may even believe sincerely in the success of such programs.

After all being born with a rare feature – be it voice, glorious looks, unusual feel for rhythm – is a genetic accident that can bring great rewards, with occasionally not even too much discipline.   It’s nature’s lottery.  Those possessing these rare DNAs, and having become rich because of them, may be inferring that they would be having the same careers even if their rewards were not in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, but just half or even a quarter of them.  After all, their distant second best options, unless rewarded for their genes, may be to be a trainer or a waiter.  Being severely taxed does not appear to impact career paths of these stars.  So why would severe taxes impact others?  Logical inference:  But then logic knows nothing.

Thus it is not surprising to find that in societies raising obstacles to both entrepreneurs and to the democratization of capital needed to finance them, there would be close relationship between politics and whatever passes for culture in the West and Far East, though rationalized with different words.  There is a meeting of minds, and being in the company of gorgeous DNAs is no impediment.The Clintons now appear to mirror these times of circuses for the masses.

What’s the remedy?  Don’t expect politicians within such society to change, and don’t expect that elections would necessarily change the situation either.

Compounding mistakes may lead to the eventual drastic change – once the prospect of default or of falling way behind other societies appears on the horizon.  Unfortunately this conclusion, that some may consider cynical, happens to be the historical evidence, from Ancient Rome, England’s Glorious Revolution, French Revolution, to Japan’s Meiji Revolution, to the fall or weakening of communism, in Russia and China, or now Greece.  Bankruptcy and its threat are Mothers of Inventions – though, to complete the saying – they can be Step Mothers of deception too, making things even worse for a while as the events following Germany’s bankruptcy after WWI may remind us.  People may join the wrong circus, led by the wrong clown.

Reuven Brenner holds the Repap Chair at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. The article draws on his Force of Finance and World of Chance.

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