The New York Times published an extensive exposé Friday of the mysteriously obtained wealth of Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier. It’s a pretty staggering display of the Wen family’s web of stock and real estate holdings arranged in innocent sounding enterprises overlaid with layers of owner-masking shell companies, all comprising a family tree whose boughs sagging with cash are sprinkled with the magic Chinese businessman’s fairy dust: political connections. The Chinese government was not amused and blocked access to the Times on its Internet servers. I suppose the Chinese should be glad that this sort of despicable behavior, at least, still has to remain hidden away.
Luckily for us, we still have a fourth estate with the time, energy, resources and freedom to dig into such things and write them down for all to see. Curiously, the Times quotes liberally in the piece from diplomatic cables made public by Wikileaks despite the paper’s nose-holding attitude toward Wikileaks’ public face, Julian Assange, now holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London to avoid disappearing into an American rabbit hole. Thus we can still see what is happening to our principal trading partner and recipient of all those manufacturing jobs ripped out of the heartland.
And what do we find has happened to the great Asian workers’ and peasants’ state? Why, it’s a giant looting operation organized and run by the Communist Party—how’s that for an ironic twist after the Cold War paranoia of two generations back? It turns out that we have indeed been betrayed to the commies after all—by American businessmen.
The Chinese elite’s arrangements must make the Wall Street boys jealous as hell. Still, we sneer at our peril. The incomparable Yves Smith, whose Naked Capitalism blog is essential reading for understanding our present circumstances, implicitly suggests that we are headed toward something much closer to the Chinese model than to our own golden past:
We are in the midst of a finance-led counterrevolution. The long standing effort to roll back New Deal reforms has moved from triumph to triumph. The foundation was laid via increasingly effective public relations efforts to sell the Ayn Randian worldview that granting individuals unfettered freedom of action would produce only virtuous outcomes since the talented would flourish and the rest would deservedly be left in the dust. In fact, societies that have moved strongly in that direction such as Pinochet’s Chile and Russia under Yeltsin, have seen plutocratic land grabs, declining standards of living (and even lifespans), and a rise in authoritarianism or (in the case of Colombia) organized crime. Those who won these brawls did flourish but at tremendous cost to society as a whole.
I date this counter-revolution roughly to the ascent to power of Saint Ronald the First in 1980-81 at which time the country’s attitude toward itself and the citizens whose comprise it underwent a profound shift. We left behind the bad old attempts of entities like the civil rights movement to obtain fairness for all in favor of unrestrained greed and personal selfishness. (Ironically, this was precisely the cliché criticism of the sixties as an era of irresponsible pleasure seeking and sexual indulgence by spoiled brats—but I digress.) With Reagan and his radical circle in power, we were encouraged to jettison any notion that people should strive to make a contribution to the well-being of others in favor of the new, ‘muscular’ ideology of neo-liberal self-reliance and market worship in which real men made tons of money, gained power and prestige, and had a blast as top dogs while pathetic losers down below could piss off up a rope. The nanny state would no longer be responsible for these inferior, weak elements, starting with ‘welfare queens’ and other leeches standing in the way of unbridled capitalist bliss.
It’s no accident that Reaganism arrived jointly with the Christian right and its calculated attack on women (dressed up as a reaction to ‘feminist’ excesses), especially including their reproductive function, and on gay emancipation, another aspect of the redrawn sexual hierarchies. The new politico-economic religion was grounded in the old macho virtues, slightly recast to accommodate women in new roles, an adjustment that was only skin-deep in any case: while women were permitted to infiltrate the old boys’ clubs in business, politics, and science, the anti-abortion crusades kept the pressure on. As long as reproductive autonomy remains in doubt, women cannot breathe entirely freely. Meanwhile, the Equal Rights Amendment, once thought to be as sure a thing as women’s suffrage, went down to defeat by the church ladies assisted by the Democrats’ usual lackluster defense.
Back to Smith’s analysis of how the uber-rich utilized stealth weapons to seize the commanding heights of the economy and the state:
In the U.S. the first step was making taxation less progressive. A second parallel measure was deregulation, particularly in financial services. Together, they fostered the growth of an uber-wealthy cohort that increasingly lives apart from middle class and poor citizens. The rich can thus tell themselves they have little to gain from the success of ordinary people. And, perversely, the global financial crisis has worked to the advantage of the financial elite. As former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson described in a May 2009 Atlantic article, the U.S. instead suffered a quiet coup with the top end of the financial services industry becoming more concentrated and more firmly in charge of the political apparatus. And you see more vivid evidence of the financial takeover in Europe where technocrats are stripping countries of their sovereignty and breaking them on the rack via failing austerity programs so as to avoid exposing the insolvency of French and German banks. In the U.S. the events of the last year are less dramatic but no less telling, including a coordinated, 17-city paramilitary crackdown on Occupy Wall Street, a ‘get out of jail almost free’ settlement for the mortgage-industrial complex, and an election where the two candidates are indistinguishable in their enthusiasm for
having old people die fastercutting Medicare and Social Security and murder by drone.
Smith is telling us that the structural changes taking place at the upper reaches of the system under which we live are setting us on a course for further and deeper disaster, and she offers a bracing corrective to the naïve Obamanians’ fervent desire that the ‘true’ Barack will suddenly appear in a second term and fulfill all their hearts’ desires. I’m as disgusted by the demented Republican thugs as anyone, but I concur that the real dangers for our fragile future lie not solely with the outright loonies but also with their legions of willing collaborators in the supposedly sane camp.
[Smith’s blog at www.nakedcapitalism.com is holding its second annual fund-raiser at present; all decent and solvent persons should send a donation.]