Given the dangers of the present moment, I hereby explore the relationship between tyranny, and the pursuit of wealth and power. I argue that what made civilizations possible also gave us hoarders, politicians, and priests; and that humanity has grappled ever since with the exploitation of humans by other humans. Given their amorality and unprecedented amounts of wealth and power, today’s multi-millionaires and billionaires, and their formidable corporations, are an obstacle to social justice, ecological balance, and peace. They are foes of democratic aspirations, as they are intent on keeping things the way they are, with them roaming free and owning politicians. Everyone else will hopefully remain content with their place in the social hierarchy. For those who are unsatisfied and complain too much about it, repression from a police state will have to control their “leveling” and disruptive aspirations. The ideological, human, and technological infrastructure that would support and sustain authoritarianism is already in place.
The narcissism and paranoia of the plutocrats do not allow them to conceive that their praxis of unbounded, unregulated expansion is antithetical to human and planetary well-being. Either that, or they just do not care, because they have been preparing themselves for probable scenarios, including devastating climate change and social unrest. In any event, the rampant anti-intellectualism in the USA and elsewhere is making it easier for the enemies of rationality, knowledge, science, and democracy to, again, install tyrannical regimes all over the globe. The divisions and distrust among the American population, with deep roots that go back to colonial times, is another factor in the road to tyranny and despair.
Surplus, Greed, and Wealth
With the advent of villages and cities, the agricultural revolution ultimately produced the hoarders, aided and abetted, and joined in their lust for amassing wealth, by two characters: the politician and the priest. Together, they would subjugate the rest of the city dwellers, and control the surpluses that made their wealth possible. In turn, wealth gave way to the construction of palaces, the sewing of luscious clothes, the mining of precious materials, and the crafting of jewels out of those materials. Slavery made its appearance in antiquity, as slave labor would be used to build the grand edifices that the ruling classes saw as monuments to themselves and their power. Nobles, as wells as kings and priests, would inhabit palaces and wear colorful robes and glitter to announce their superiority to their perplexed subjects, and those they dominated or from whom they took the surpluses.
Wealth was made possible by the existence of surplus, which in turn was possible only when human societies produced enough food, shelter, and free time—time away from hunting, and later from plowing the fields. Indeed, food production was pursued by a certain sector, freeing the rest to pursue other trades and endeavors. Thus began specialization. The surplus of food and time allowed those with a hoarding mentality to amass as much wealth as they could. Those who had, and still have, their eyes on the surplus are the ones prone to the acquisition of wealth, regardless of who produces it or makes it possible, and who is exploited and abused in the process.
The Mentality of the Ultra-Rich
Up until today, the psychology of the wealthy seems to include their detachment from the rest of us, as they go on living and operating in their particular, isolated bubbles, with their sense that they are “special,” meaning “superior.” Their particular rationalizing avoids feeling guilt or inadequacy; their deficit of empathy yields their ruthlessness.
Consider the following, from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “The Rich Boy”:
“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”
People from higher socioeconomic classes do worse on a test where they are asked to identify emotions in photographs of human faces. They are also less accurate at perceiving the emotional states of others in real-life interactions. In fact, researchers can reduce people’s empathy just by prompting them to think of themselves as relatively high-status. Test subjects who are asked to imagine an interaction with someone from a lower social rung get worse at understanding other people’s emotions. The trouble higher-status people have recognizing emotions is tied to the fact that they tend to think about themselves and others in terms of fixed traits (“She’s a nervous person”). In contrast, people from lower social classes are more likely to use contextual explanations for people’s behavior (“This interview is making her uncomfortable”).
That deficit of empathy is also part and parcel of a failure of the imagination. The wealthy cannot conceive that many fellow humans are not interested in amassing and flaunting wealth, but in living in peace, and finding satisfaction, or solace, in a sense of community; in art; in knowledge; in striving to be a little better each passing day; in raising their children to be compassionate, curious, and strong; in contemplating nature and keeping intact that sense of wonder, so common in young kids. That failure of the imagination may help explain the paranoia of the wealthy, and their simplistic explanations involving the populace’s “envy” of their wealth and status.
Division and Tyranny
Those at the top of the proverbial pecking order have managed to keep the rest of the population divided. In the thirteen North American colonies, the trick was using the presence of slaves of African descent as a source, not only of cheap labor, but of contrast. The gambit was redirecting the attention of the poor of European descent—including slaves themselves, known as indentured servants—from their oppressors toward those “Negroes.” That was done by emphasizing a cluster of ideas proposing that slaves were intrinsically inferior, while the “whites” were special, better off, and superior. Over time, that psychological gambit turned the middling and poor whites into stakeholders in the racial hierarchy. That mentality is virtually intact today among too many Americans of mainly European descent. Cultures are stable, even in the face of new circumstances. From the viewpoint of the hoarders, today’s racism may even be “bad for business,” if only in the long run. But, for now, it seems to serve them well enough. Divide and conquer, indeed.
Meanwhile, the mass incarceration of African Americans, the existence of a massive prison industrial complex, and the growing of police forces at all levels, have shown all their might and ugliness in the current repression of protestors over the daily affronts, injustices, and murders suffered by the George Floyds of this life. It may be that most policemen are also stakeholders in the status quo, which they seem to be defending as if their lives depended on it. The upcoming, fully authoritarian state will count on them.
The ruling classes and their allies, including the mass media, have managed to create and maintain the “false consciousness” of turning the attention of the plurality of the population away from them, redirecting it toward all kinds of imaginary enemies, mostly fellow oppressed humans. Neoliberal capitalism has failed to deliver to “white America” too, but many are still duped by Tucker Carlson and the rest of them at Fox News. After all, those tele-journalists have made a career out of deviating the attention, from the greedy at the top and the corrupt politicians and judges they own, to “liberals,” “social justice warriors,” “abortionists,” and immigrants. The rest of the corporate media is not much better. But they are doing their job, which is serving the interests and desires of the plutocrats, regardless of how shortsighted and destructive the very rich may be.
Moreover, for a long time now, the United States has featured a noticeable anti-intellectualism. The last 50 years have seen an increase in stupidity, superstition, religious fundamentalism, and hate for knowledge, as well as for the “elitists” who supposedly flaunt it. Dinner is served for authoritarianism, always capable of providing soothing and simplistic narratives about history, collective destiny, and national salvation. The regime that is emerging is at the service of capitalists, who wanted—and likely already achieved—a mostly obedient population that does not dare question their ways, and knows everyone’s place. The capitalist, expansionist machine, as well as the hierarchy, are to be sustained at all costs.
Democracy is seen by the hoarders as an obstacle. Soon, even the mere idea, the sheer longing for it, will be suppressed. Those protestors in the streets today, as well as all those who are socially and politically conscious, will not determine the outcome. Our collective fates are in the hands of a monolithic plurality: the anti-intellectuals, the easily duped, the racists, the despisers of knowledge and science, those who vote against their interests in the name of stale ideologies based on the horrific, false ideas of race and racial hierarchy. Those at the top, and their enablers, already own the minds and wills of this cohort.
I would love to be proven wrong.