In the 1985 movie “Back to the Future,” Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) travels in a time machine from the 1980s to the 1950s. When he tells people of the ’50s he is from the ’80s, he is met with skepticism.
1950s person: Then tell me, future boy, who’s President of the United States in 1985?
Marty McFly: Ronald Reagan.
1950s person: Ronald Reagan? The actor? [chuckles in disbelief] Then who’s vice president? Jerry Lewis [comedian]?
In the 1950s, Reagan was head of the Screen Actors Guild and led the purges of Hollywood actors, writers and directors who were suspected of having left political sympathies, but the idea that he might, one day, become president must have sounded absurd.
In the waning months of the Reagan administration (December 1988, nearly 30 years before Trump became president]) Mad Magazine presented a parody of Donald Trump, imagining him telling the story of the 1946 Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”:
George Baily [Jimmy Stewart] inherited a small building-and-loan business from his father. He lent money for mortgages. When people couldn’t make their payments he told them not to worry about it. What a schmuck! He should have foreclosed and kicked them out! He could have gotten a tax abatement and build condos, a high-rise office complex, and a gambling casino. He just didn’t understand the art of the deal…
In my opinion, George was a total loser! He never made a million-dollar deal, he never had his picture on a magazine cover, and he never shook hands with Mike Tyson [champion boxer] or Don King [boxing promoter]…
This is a wonderful life? Come on!
In the 1980s, Trump was already famous as a billionaire who articulated the philosophy of look out for your own profit and don’t care how much you hurt anyone else in the process. However, no one would imagine he would eventually become president. Long before he entered politics, Trump called anyone who challenged him a loser. With that vocabulary, he perpetuated the idea that victims are weak and lazy and don’t have the stuff to prevail. They deserve their fate and must submit to the triumphant. As a landlord, Trump brutally intimidated his tenants — cutting heat and hot water, refusing to maintain and repair his buildings, which sometimes became rat infested — in the hope of driving them out of rent-controlled apartments that he planned to convert into condominiums.
Trump’s presidency has been treated as a fluke, but it actually represents a very old ideology of capitalism. When Trump became president, the media and liberals became nostalgic for Reagan, saying that Reagan would never do what Trump was doing. In reality, Trump was Reagan’s heir. Reagan appointed Alan Greenspan as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Greenspan’s five terms as Chairman included two reappointments by Bill Clinton, which suggests his paradigm was accepted by some Democrats.
Greenspan regularly published with Ayn Rand, the self-proclaimed philosopher and novelist of capitalism. Her economics underlie Reaganism and Trumpism and have a long lineage, going back at least to the British workhouses of the early 1800s and the American gilded age of the late 1800s and early 1900s. She divided the world into two distinct orders of being: creatives and moochers. To defend her when her book “Atlas Shrugged” was badly reviewed, Greenspan wrote in a letter to the New York Times:
Atlas Shrugged is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.
Similar to Trump’s winners, Ayn Rand’s creatives are chosen to rule by some higher, perhaps biological, force and, if unrestricted, will bring progress and prosperity to everyone. They must be motivated with the promise of greater wealth in order to fulfill their productive potential. She was convinced If they are unrestrained in their pursuit of fortune, their riches will “trickle down” and bring affluence for everyone, although, of course, ordinary people will never be as rich as they are. Unfortunately, creatives are often held back by the moochers-similar to Trump’s losers. At various times, especially during the New Deal from 1932 to 1980, the moochers controlled the state, with disastrous results. The ruling moochers were the liberal professional-managerial class (PMC), bleeding hearts who were so selfish they could not bear to look at other mooches — poor parasites who might be homeless and destitute. To soothe the PMC’s guilt, they used the state to give the extremely poor welfare and other government benefits. They may have improved the lives of the victims in the short run, but in the long run, they denied the poor the incentive to uplift themselves by their bootstraps and allowed them to wallow in their misery. The programs were presented as benefiting the poor, but they really served the PMC who have to be thrown out of power for the good of everyone else.
The Capitalist class itself is divided over the cut-throat ideology of Rand-Reagan-Trumpism (also called neoclassicism and neo-liberalism), with some embracing it as a license to do whatever they want, but others fearing it is too blatant in telling the 99% they are on their own and the elite owes them nothing. Under neoclassicism, wealth did not trickle down; rather from 1980 to 2016, the ratio of pay for the average Standard & Poor’s 500 American corporate CEO to the average worker grew from 42 to 1 to 347 to 1 as the percentage of national income held by the richest 1% doubled. Capitalism strives to win the support of the 99% through a utilitarian pledge of a higher standard of living for everyone willing to work hard. It will be shared, but not equally. The gap between the 1% and the 99% shows this is not a promise kept. Accordingly, if capitalism is going to win the acquiesce of the vast majority, it must find another way of legitimating itself — a kind of glorious cause. This become urgent when inequality zooms up and workers are forgotten. In the first year of Trump’s presidency, the stock market as measured by the Dow Jones Industrial average grew 27%, but the wages of working people were stagnant, growing at 0%. Wages, in fact, had been stagnant since the beginning of the Reagan presidency.
Western Capitalist democracies proclaim equality, material prosperity and security but produce extreme differences in wealth and power. The promises broken, elites often turn to other visions — partially borrowed from feudalism — to win public support. Nations turn to glory, honor, nobility and war as a way of winning over workers and legitimating the capitalist system itself.
Capitalism’s contradictions have produced a cultural divide. Borrowing terms from German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, we call one side “cosmopolitans”— mainly urban people, who see themselves as citizens of the world, not one region or country, identify as secular, value critical thinking, preach multi-culturalism, champion racial diversity, entertain state welfare systems, and are cautious about going to war. Their opponents, called by both Streeck and us, “traditionalists,” are primarily people who live in rural areas, reject welfare, tend to be racist, are super-patriotic, are often living paycheck to paycheck, feeling left behind, economically insecure, and culturally deplored. They typically champion community, tradition, authority, God, family, and their race and nation.
Materially, feudal peasants lived in a misery hardly anyone in the modern West could imagine. However, feudal ideology, resting heavily on Christian religion, offered a sense of ultimate meaning and purpose which capitalism cannot match, for capitalism envisions nothing higher to strive for than economic wealth. Under capitalist secular ideology, if life here on earth is bad, there is no compensation. Feudal Christianity gave hope of a better life in the next world, even if it can only be reached after death. While capitalist ideology teaches “you’re on your own,” psychologist Erich Fromm pointed out that even the lowest medieval peasant gained a sense of security from the knowledge that he had been assigned a place within the “Great Chain of Being”:
The social order was conceived as a natural order, and being a definite part of it gave man a feeling of security and of belonging.
Feudal ideology does not obligate the ruling aristocrats to deliver anything concrete, observable and measurable. On the other hand, capitalism promises a prosperity that can clearly be seen. Hence, it is obvious when capitalists fail to deliver. Largely because capitalism was never able to eliminate economic and social insecurity, feudal values never completely died. To prevent discontent from going rampant in times of anxiety, capitalism might borrow a vision of ultimate purpose from feudalism. Feudalism teaches sacrificing yourself for some higher cause, which capitalism does not. Feudal values like honor and valor are more likely to galvanize soldiers to kill and die in war than the capitalist pursuit of profit. They might willingly forfeit their lives for their king or country, but not for Shell Oil.
The feudal crusades, with their devastation, plunder and massacre of tens of thousands of Moslems, Jews and Christian were Divinely sanctioned missions to restore the Holy Lands from the heathens for Christ. While capitalism offers individual profit as a reward, feudalism promises God’s grace, a place in the world to come, community and national identity, honor, valor, glory -all bringing a sense that you are part of some greater cause beyond yourself. Feudalism promoted the idea that if my God, my king, my community, my nation is great, I am great- an attitude that persists today and capitalism finds useful. It does not matter if I am starving peasant or an underpaid worker; I am great! Since my side, whether tribe, nation, or civilization, is sanctioned by some higher force- be it God, nature or whatever-it is good; its foe is evil.
When the 99% faces a declining standard of living, appealing to feudal values might help breed stability. Reagan successfully did this when Europe and Japan began to challenge American economic domination and America lost a war in Vietnam. In an extreme crisis, when capitalism is in danger of collapse, the capitalist elite has -and might again- turned to fascism which melds capitalism with feudal thinking.
A compete merging of feudalism and capitalism would be difficult to achieve for they are logically incompatible. The Medieval Catholic Church labeled usury, avarice, pride and gluttony as deadly sins. The New Testament teaches “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Ayn Rand openly called selfishness a virtue. She was a Russian born Jewish atheist who considered religion a tool of moochers. Capitalists saw feudal aristocrats as lazy, parasitical and incompetent, while aristocrats considered capitalists upstarts, who grubbingly worked for money, and lacked grace, refinement and manners. The aristocracy saw themselves as endowed with a superior essence that biologically separated them from the common lot. With a grace given to them by God, they were “blue blooded” guardians within a “great chain of being,” grounded in tradition, in which everyone was interconnected but had an assigned place. The goal was to maintain harmony, order and stability. As such, progress, trying to uplift yourself, or seeking a profit was shunned. Living off of trade or industry was a sign of inferiority. The truly worthy glowed in their essence and their inherited status and need not work. Despite these differences, aristocrats and capitalists often intermarried, especially as the aristocracy lost the power to challenge capitalism.
Both supporters and critics of capitalism see it as undermining the sacred. Even Karl Marx, probably its greatest opponent of all, praised it for this. While Marx wanted to see capitalism overthrown, Max Weber, another social theorist almost as acclaimed as Marx, begrudgingly accepted it. However, he feared capitalism would lock people into “iron cages” where they would lack a feeling of meaning, purpose and direction and he worried who or what would fill that void. Weber feared capitalism, along with science and bureaucracy, would produce “disenchantment” without a mystical sense binding people together. Consequently, capitalism would be unstable.
As intellectualism suppresses belief in magic, the world’s processes become disenchanted, lose the magical significance, and henceforth simply ‘are’ and ‘happen’ but no longer signify anything… Bureaucracy develops the more perfectly, the more it is ‘dehumanized’, the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements which escape calculation.
Marx’s critique of capitalism was much more brutal than Weber’s. To rally the 99% against it, Marx and his followers on the Left addressed the rational interests of people they considered its victims. On the other hand, rightwing movements, including fascism, the American Christian right and the Ku Klux Klan, effectively won followers by offering an alternative to “disenchantment,” and appealing to the “irrational”, an alleged reality- not knowable through science, reason or empiricism.
Fascism may carry these ideals to extreme, but even in more democratic forms of capitalism, the rulers need a population that will be compliant employees and fight their wars. The Marines would have little trouble fitting into fascism. They recruit by proclaiming themselves “The Few, The Proud, The Brave” and expect subordinates to show they have the “right stuff” through blind obedience. The private is supposed to submit to the sergeant, who in turn must submit to the lieutenant, all the way up the hierarchy to general. This is little different from the feudal “great chain of being,” which it may be modeled after, with the peasant expected to submit to the lord who also carries deference up the chain all the way up to king.
The feudal peasant seldom ventured more than a few miles from where he was born and felt strong affinity to his manor or village. In contrast, the largest capitalist corporations are cosmopolitan, transcending national boundaries, and as they become global, willingly sacrifice local communities to profit. Throughout much of American history, there was antagonism between large monopoly capitalists and traditionalists. Traditionalists tend to be more patriotic, have more intense national and racial identities, and stronger ties to community, family and religion. Reagan did something that, at one time, would be considered unimaginable. He built an alliance between traditionalists and the corporate cosmopolitan elite. As of this writing, this alliance continues. It is referred to as conservativism and it is the core of the Republican Party. It brought us Trump. It has not yet brought us fascism, but in a more extreme crisis, it could.
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Adapted from Glorious Causes: The Irrationality of Capitalism, War and Politics. Copyright Routledge 2019. Reprinted with permission.