avatar
ROTTING AWAY; THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF CORRUPTION AND DECADENCE


Doug Dowd

History

is replete with corrupt and decadent societies, including (but not beginning

with) that of 1st Century Rome, where decadent/corrupt Nero fiddled as

corrupt/decadent Rome burned.  Iniquity — and inequality — in ancient and

medieval societies were an outcome of power and wealth deriving from military

and/or religious strength; nowadays corruption and decadence — and inequality

– are the synchronous creation and outcome of the political economy of monopoly

capitalism. 

From

its birth to the present, capitalism has faced three imperatives:  to

exploit, to expand, and to rule oligarchically;  the disastrous history of

the first half of the 20th century was an outcome of capitalism’s inability to

do so adequately.  Since World War II, capital, led by the USA, has learned

that the "big three imperatives" can be met, through always spreading

and deepening corruption and decadence.  Without the latter becoming always

more fullblown, capital’s life is at risk — except through rule by force and

violence:  "capitalism with the gloves off," as Laski once

defined fascism.

The

difference between the capitalisms of the 19th and the 20th centuries are many;

most important are that 1) as industrialization spread outward from Britain in

the 19th century, capital was short in supply and the demand for all goods

rising; throughout the 20th century (except intermittently) the shortage has not

been that of capital, that is, productive capacities, but of finding markets and

controlling capital’s chronic excess; 2) political democracy for much of the

19th century was rare; as the 20th century began, however, it was common, if

also still limited, at its best; 3) throughout the entire 19th century, worker

exploitation was simple; as the century ended, emerging political democracy was

joined by emerging labor and socialist movements; finally, 4) imperialism as a

source of buoyancy and profits instead became a source of costs and conflict,

and the worst war ever– up to then.

Marx

observed that "… we always find that /a/ problem itself arises only when

the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the

process of formation" — that is, a "problem" becomes

identifiable only when a gap between need and possibility becomes evident. 

(Note "possibility," not "probability."

Marx

had the "problem" of the working class in mind, and its potential

ability to resolve it by overthrowing capitalism.  But his generalization

applies to capital as well.  First, an examination of capitalism’s problem

over the 20th century, divided into two sharply contrasting halves.  Then a

look at OUR problem.

As

the twentieth century began both "problem" and the "material

conditions for its solution" were merely in the early "process of

formation"; only after decades of chaos, convulsion and destruction had

both "matured;" and as the 1950s opened capital was well on its way

toward the "solution."  The constituent elements of that

solution, to be noted momentarily, had corruption and decadence at their core –

a set of processes characterized as "friendly fascism" 20 years ago

(by the late Bertram Gross, in a book with that title).  Of course force

and violence were necessary and utilized, but almost entirely in the

imperialized — newly-dubbed the "neocolonial" or

"developing" world.   

The

unresolved problem had begun to emerge in the late 19th century; in that

century’s mid-quarters, Britain’s combined economic and military power allowed

it to both gain from spreading industrialization and to stifle undesirable

developments in the global "race for empire."  But there are

always the failures of success:  what Britain was gaining from also brought

about (and required) the rising strength of other nations, most critically,

Germany in Europe, the USA in this hemisphere, and Japan in Asia.  In the

first decade of the new century, Britain — paying what Veblen called "the

penalty of taking the lead" — found itself faced with competitors not only

for markets and imperial space, but for political and military power, most

vividly by Germany:  in the 1890s Germany’s new navy became superior to the

UK’s; by 1910 its productive strengths were such that it could easily supply the

capital goods needs of all of Europe — had their markets been open (which they

were not).

The

USA’s burgeoning strength was much aided and abetted by World War I (as was

Japan’s).  For all others, the war was an economic, political, military and

human disaster.  But the USA was neither able nor inclined to put the

pieces back together again, to become "the once and future hegemon": 

the "new era" of the 1920s in the USA constituted a step in the right

direction (that is, toward consumerism and deepening corruption and decadence);

but, in addition to not having fully "learned its lines" for that

role, the total breakdown of the global economy and emerging total chaos of the

postwar world rendered the USA finally unable even to hold its own economy

together. 

So,

capitalism’s gloves were peeled off in Italy, Japan and Germany, and both soiled

and frayed in France.  The "material conditions for /the problem’s)

solution were just barely in "the process of formation."  It took

World War II’s flattening of all major powers except the USA, plus developing

technologies, to frame a lasting solution.

And

what a solution!  Its main elements have been the stuff of our (and

others’); lives for the past 50 years:  some combination of Cold War and its

extraordinary military expenditures and rising consumerism and debt to absorb

the always rising production and productivity of our era:  taken together,

the two sets of expenditures both stimulated and effectively absorbed the

accumulation of capital (here and abroad), that and more: they also enabled and

required the numbing of a never robust political democracy, a process lubricated

by McCarthyism and the Cold War, in turn much assisted by emerging

communications technologies.  In the process any diversions from that path

that might come (or had come) from organized labor, from the universities, from

books, from the entertainment world, were rendered impotent, corrupted into

becoming supportive voices (or silent), everything and everyone for sale;

becoming, also, corrupters and corruptees alike, great shoppers and borrowers.

It

has been said that capitalism’s health depends upon its being able to bring out

the worst and starving the best in us.

The

contemporary processes satisfying that need have gone far enough by now that we

have to remind ourselves of which is which.  Part of what is the worst in

us may be seen as "the seven deadly sins" (pride, gluttony, lust,

wrath, envy, sloth and covetousness, in case you’ve forgotten).  Who gets

to be a rich CEO or politician, or celebrity or, for that matter, a successful

doctor, lawyer or academic, without sitting at that table? 

But

are there not also rewards for locating and employing the best in ourselves? 

Certainly; but they are largely or entirely non-material, internal, as much

scorned as admired (except in rhetoric):  compassion, solidarity, love,

generosity, (dare I say it?) common decency.  Those may well constitute,

finally, the good life; but they do capitalism no good, and capitalism returns

the compliment.

So

OK already; what’s all this to do with corruption and decadence?  If we

mean by "corruption" the betrayal of function, and if we mean by

"decadence" the processes which (among others) lead us to minimize or

abandon those ways and means that add to our creativity and our humanity and our

joys while, instead, stimulating us ever more to buy, to behave, to want, not to

think, so as to deaden our sense of decency, taste, of what it means to be

human, while leading us by the hand back toward adolescence, even infancy — if

that is what we mean, then let us now simply bring to mind what is now common in

our politics, our health and educational systems, our… lives:  rotting or

rotted from top to bottom; and as for decadence — don’t ask, just look and

listen.

It

has been said the those who seek power for themselves are, by definition,

corruptible.  To make the trip up the ladder of power (and/or prestige,

fame, etc.) the prime criterion is to repress one’s obligations, to betray the

ethics of one’s social function:  for a politician, serving one’s

constituency (voters, not those who shell out the most); for a doctor doing no

harm and serving health first, not $$$$; for a prof., teaching and learning, not

promotion and power; for… you name it.  In sum, visualize our society as

a giant cesspool, wherein, of course, the biggest turds rise to the top.

 

But

no, it may be argued, after all is said and done, has not the capitalist era

carried humanity to levels of material wellbeing definable as genuine progress

– for health, education, comfort, and more?  Certainly; but that certainty

is yoked to a twin:  a dynamic whose benefits end up in the lap of the few,

and at very high costs to the many — or, as Paul Baran put it long ago, it is

precisely the relationships between the rich and the poor peoples of the world

that make and keep both the rich and the poor that way.  And then there are

the festering wounds done to the the polity, to the world’s culture, to Mother

Nature.  Among those costs of such "progess" has been the

necessity for capital to mold a society in which corruption and decadence have

become the toxic stuff of our social existence.

If

we are to have a society that is better, safer, saner than this emerging

inferno, it will not be handed down to us by those now sitting in the catbird

seat.  Although we too have inhaled the dirty social air, and though

tainted and weakened we too may be, is there not still enough life left in us

(as Veblen once put it) "to save ourselves alive," to work our way

together up the side of this very steep and slippery mountain to carry ourselves

and others into the clean air?

 

Leave a comment