“There’s class warfare alright. But it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” – Warren Buffett
“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” – Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page – Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens
“Total liberty for the wolves is death to the lambs.” – Isaiah Berlin
Remembrance of Resets Past
By James Heddle and Mary Beth Brangan – EON
Revisiting the Great American Retro-Reset 1970-2020 – Democracy Down the Tubes?
As the prospect of the World Economic Forum’s proposed ‘Great Reset’ as an international response to the current Covid crisis looms, it’s worth reminding ourselves that other ‘resets’ – i.e., radical transformative shifts in the socio-political-economic structure – have happened before, historically and recently, at both the international and national levels.
Some Famous Examples
The Post-WW II establishment of the U.S.-dominated, Keynesian Breton Woods system of institutions like the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO; Nixon and Kissinger’s ‘opening to China” and abandonment of the gold standard; Carter’s creation of the ‘petro-dollar’ system with Saudi Arabia are familiar examples.
In the U.S., just a partial list would include:
- The 1914 establishment of the Federal Reserve system
- The financial shocks of 1907, 1933, 1977and 2000, with its massive corporate bailout
- The New Deal and its subsequent roll-back
- The right-wing take-over of the courts, culminating most recently with the elevation of Amy Barrett to the Supreme Court
- 9/11, its resulting legislation and the emergence of the surveillance society
A new book by Kurt Andersen brilliantly charts the many ‘resets’ that have occurred in the U.S. just in the space of our lifetimes. Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, A Recent History shows how “Beginning in the early 1970s, by means of a long war conceived of and executed by a confederacy of big business CEOs, the superrich, and right-wing zealots, the rules and norms that made the American middle class possible were undermined and dismantled.”
Andersen weaves an extensively documented tapestry of the last half-century naming names and tracing interacting currents in the U.S. cultural, political and economic systems.
His revelations build on the insights of two previous pivotal works,
Jane Mayer’s Dark Money – The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right and Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains – The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.
Read together these three exhaustively-sourced books serve as a stark warning of how quickly public attitudes and power relationships can be changed by ruthless actors with a sophisticated, coordinated and well-thought-out agenda.
The articulation and systematic, relentless implementation over decades of such agendas have radically changed the U.S. social, political, economic and cultural landscape – for example – in the total dismantling of ‘anti-trust’ and pro-labor legislation. But that’s not all.
To reprise an old vaudeville quip, the American people have been taken to the cleaners several times and they still don’t know their pants are off.
Greed is Good – The Ascendancy of Ayn Rand, John Galt and Scrooge McDuck
Back in the last century, when the anti-New Deal, de-regulation rollback frenzy was gathering momentum, one of the co-authors did a stint working for a prominent econometric forecasting firm. Her boss had only one picture on the walls of his spartan office. It was a glossy framed color portrait of the Disney cartoon character Scrooge McDuck, which bore the bold caption, “Greed is Good!”
It was the defining emblem of a seismic reset in American ideology and its political economy, the ascendency of what commentator Marshall Berman termed in his 1981 book, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, “the most violently destructive ruling class in history.”
Operation Rollback – A Counter-Evolution Timeline
Brilliant investigative journalist Jane Mayer’s 2016 book documented how two billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch had invested more than a hundred million dollars in a “war against Obama.” Mayer went on to reveal how the Kochs and other wealthy right-wing groups were funneling huge quantities of “dark money,” – untraceable by law, thanks to the Citizens United ruling – into political candidates and organizations whose collective agenda was to destroy unions, disenfranchise millions of voters, deregulate corporations, refocus taxes from the rich to the rest of us, and block any significant actions to address human-caused climate disruption.
The agenda included training intellectuals for a “battle of ideas” and training a cadre of professional political operatives to staff a growing stealth network of think tanks and “astro-turf” grassroots front-groups, funded by the Kochs and their large coalition of wealthy donors, to put the ideas into action. The list of such outfits included the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, the State Policy Network, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Tax Foundation, the Leadership Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
The ideology driving this growing radical movement could be partly traced to such pro-market thinkers as Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek. But there was a missing piece of the ideological puzzle.
Historian Nancy MacLean’s 2017 publication filled in the missing link. She traced it to the work of an intentionally obscure, but hugely influential, self-styled ‘economist’ – and eventual Nobel Laureate – at the University of Virginia named James McGill Buchanan. Back in 1956, in response to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling aimed at school desegregation issued the previous year, Buchanan began to develop his seminal radical agenda that proved foundational for subsequent sweeping developments that have now transformed the U.S. system.
Protecting Capitalism Against Democracy
In 1962, by then ensconced in his own Dupont-funded Center for the Study of Public Choice (CSPC) at Virginia Tech, Buchanan and his co-author Gordon Tullock published The Calculus of Consent – Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy. Despite its intentionally misleading title, the book laid out the principles of what they called “public choice theory,” and was basically a strategy for protecting capitalism against democracy.
Then in 1970 the New York Times published University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman’s Friedman Doctrine stating that a corporation’s “greatest responsibility lies in the satisfaction of the shareholders,” which should supersede all other social, moral and environmental values. It established the “stockholder value,” “Greed is Good” ethos which has dominated business practice ever since.
Countering the ‘Progressive Threat’
In 1971, the corporate attorney – and soon to be a Nixon-appointed Supreme Court Justice – Lewis Powell built on Public Choice Theory and the Friedman Doctrine to pen his infamous Memo to the U.S. Chamber of Congress entitled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” Powell warned that traitors like Ralph Nader and Yale Professor Charles Reich in his then widely popular book The Greening of America, were mounting a “frontal assault on the free enterprise system.” The 34-page “confidential” strategy memo – soon leaked to a wide and appreciative business audience – laid out a detailed plan by which capitalists and the rich could use their wealth to assert control over “threatening” progressive ideas in in law, media, education and public policy. Powell’s plan has been assiduously and successfully implemented in a dedicated long-game ever since.
Capturing the Courts
The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies – Federalist Society for short – was founded a decade later in 1982 as part of that long-game. Michael Horowitz, who wrote another seminal memo laying out the Society’s strategy, told a reporter at the time, “Twenty years from now we will see our federal justices coming from the Federalist Society.” Today Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Barrett have born out the accuracy of his prediction. Andersen points out that “At the level just below the Supreme Court, the 179 federal appeals court judges all over the country, almost 30 percent have been appointed since 2017, and more than 80 percent of those Trump appointees are Federalist alumni or members.”
As early as 2010 the Federalist Society’s long-game strategy had already begun to pay back big time. It had been helped along by the work of the James Madison Center, founded by Senator Mitch McConnell and funded by Betsy DeVos. As Anderson tells it, “…at the beginning of the year, the Supreme Court issued its Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision , effectively prohibiting serious election finance laws and giving big business (and unions, as if) free rein to spend money on campaigns.. And in the fall…, Democrats lost their large majorities in both the Senate and house.”
The Citizens United decision opened the floodgates of private and corporate money in U.S. politics and put another nail in the coffin of the already dwindling union movement. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz described it as “converting higher economic inequality into greater political inequality. Political inequality, in its turn, gives rise to more economic inequality.” Anderson comments, “It’s also the corruption of our system of government, ruining democracy.”
Then, not to be left out of the Great American Reset mix, are the think tanks and the educational institutions, other handy instruments in the weaponization of wealth.
Founded in 1973 by right-wing political strategists Paul Weyrich, Edwin Feulner, and beer billionaire Joseph Coors, the archetypal think tank is the Heritage Foundation, dedicated, according to it’s website, to advancing “the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, [and] traditional American values.” In an annual ranking of influential think tanks by the University of Pennsylvania, the Heritage Foundation is rated as the eighth most influential on earth and the second in the U.S.. Not far behind in the ranking are the Mercatus Center and the Manhattan Institute, both founded and funded by the now notorious petro-billionaires the Koch Brothers.
The Brothers Koch are other key players in this Great American Reset that has been perpetrated since the 1970s – largely by conscious stealth, far out of the public view, both by the Kochs and what Andersen calls, “their new confederacy of right wing billionaire political donors, the active core of whom had made their fortunes in fossil fuels and finance.” Organized by the Kochs since the early 2000s in biannual gatherings at posh venues, this “confederacy” has established a right-wing organization called the Donors’ Trust, which has “enabled donors to remain anonymous and keep their fingerprints off their $1.1 billion in contributions (so far) to hundreds of groups dedicated to ‘advancing liberty.’”
Buchanan eventually moved his Center for the Study of Public Choice (CSPC)
to Virginia’s public George Mason University. There, in 1979 the Kochs helped establish the Antonin Scalia Law School. Then the Koch operation, as Andersen puts it, “leveled-up and went national.” He reports, “It endows and otherwise subsidizes libertarian economic and legal programs and classes and one-off conferences and a thousand professors at more than three hundred public and private colleges and universities, including every member of the Ivy League and MIT, NYU, Wesleyan, Amherst, Wellesley, Georgetown, Northwestern, Stanford, and most of the University of California system” since 2017 to the tune of $100 million a year. That gives the network dubbed by the International Forum on Globalization “the Kochtopus” enormous influence over the U.S. academic landscape.
Even this partial list would be misleadingly incomplete without including Big Oil’s manufactured doubt offensive on consensus-based climate change science. Even as Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth was winning an Oscar reports Andersen, “the oil and coal billionaires Charles and David Koch, together with Exxon-Mobil and more than a hundred right-wing foundations, were funneling hundred of millions a year to organizations working against the mitigation of global warming. Before long, full-on climate change denialism was Republican orthodoxy.”
Onward, Back to the Bad Ol’ Robber Baron Days of Yore!
From 1970 on, as these three books show, the radical right worked assiduously to reset the U.S. system in its favor, rollback progressive reforms and redeem the formerly pejorative term ‘greed.’ Oliver Stone captured the spirit of that era in the speech he gave the anti-hero Michael Douglas hostile take-over, leveraged-buy-out artist, character Gordon Gekko in his 1987 classic feature, Wall Street.
“I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them. 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 the evolutionary spirit…, and greed – you mark my words – will …save…that malfunctioning corporation called the USA!”
This was the era that saw the apogee in popularity of the since-discredited ‘hooray-for-me-and-the-hell-with everyone-else,’ ‘objectivist’ cult ideology first articulated by Ayn Rand. Speaking through her archetypal capitalist character John Galt in her influential 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, Rand put it like this: “I swear-by my life and my love of it – that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
That ideology was embodied by Rand’s dedicated, inner-circle acolyte Alan Greenspan. He was first appointed (with Rand at his side) in 1974 by President Ford as Chairman of the U.S. Council of Economic Advisors, and then by President Ronald Reagan in August 1987, as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Greenspan’s application of Rand’s philosophy during his long tenure demonstrably led to the 2008 American economic meltdown and tax-payer-funded corporate bail-out. Rand had died in 1982 and so didn’t live to see her crackpot notions crash the U.S. economy.
This is Greenspan being questioned by Congressman Henry Waxman, Chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing in October, 2008 about his decision to not regulate newly invented, arcane ‘credit instruments’ like credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations:
Waxman: “You have been a staunch advocate for letting markets regulate themselves. My question is simple: Were you wrong?”
Greenspan: “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organizations, specifically banks and others, was such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and the equity.”
As Reuters reported at the time, “When asked by Waxman if his ideology pushed him to make bad decisions, Greenspan said he found a ‘flaw’ in his governing ideology that has led him to reexamine his thinking.” Flaw, indeed.
So much for the views of Ayn Rand, John Galt, Gordon Gekko and Scrooge McDuck. Greed on the part of the few had been conclusively been proven in practice to be decidedly not good for the common good.
America’s Decades of De-Evolution
Anderson’s book shows how, as the book jacket blurb puts it, “The clock was turned back on a century of economic progress, making greed good, workers powerless and the market all-powerful…lifting up an oligarchy that served only its own interests, and leaving the huge majority of Americans with dwindling economic prospects and hope.”
He admits avoiding use of the term ‘capitalist class.’ As he goes on to explain, “I’ve never had any hesitation using the terms working class or middle class, of course, but as an educated American liberal coming of age in the 1970’s, I learned it was simple-minded and vulgar-Marxist to speak of the economic overlords and the very rich as a class or even as capitalists. And while I still resist defaulting to the conspiracist explanations, pieces of the story do look and swim and walk and quack an awful lot like ducks – that is, resemble a well-executed conspiracy, not especially secret, by the leaders of the capitalist class, at the expense of everyone else.”
He bullet points the essential right wing corporate orthodox catechism thusly:
- Government is bad
- Establishment experts are overrated or just plain wrong
- Science is suspect
- Believe in our perfect mythical yesteryear
- All hail big business
- Short-term profits are everything
- Inequality’s not so bad
We part company with Andersen’s analysis when he concludes his book by attempting to show how these tenants of belief produced the Trump Administration’s failed response to the Covid crisis without probing beneath the Big Pharma-dominated media miasma.
But, that aside, just the sweeping historical changes Dark Money, Democracy in Chains and Evil Geniuses conclusively document – and which the co-authors have personally witnessed and lived through – may well seem in retrospect like a proverbial ‘walk in the park’ compared to the global Great Covid Reset now being attempted by a new transnational cadre of evil geniuses.
What the U.S. billionaire class has done in America, the transnational capitalist class now aspires to accomplish at the world-system level.
In the next installment of this series we do a deep dive into that proposed agenda and its potential planetary impacts. Stay tuned.
James Heddle and Mary Beth Brangan co-direct EON, the Ecological Options Network. EON is producing the forthcoming feature-length documentary SHUTDOWN LEGACY on the challenges of long-term radioactive waste management.