The Mythology of Wealth

Along with ideas about politics, economic theory, political strategy and other related stuff, you will find at this site a sprinkling of something few people associate with political organizing. I refer to a healthy dose of cultural anthropology. Indeed, one message of this site is that whatever you understand about taxes, trade policy, wages and general social conditions, you can’t win the political struggle without also understanding things like culture, symbolism and myth.

Many citizens of western industrial democracies like to believe that they have transcended their “superstitious” pre-scientific past. In fact, a central tenet of our industrial culture is faith in its “rationalism”. Much of the political debate centers around “rational” social and economic policy. In fact, progressives frequently fail to take into account “cultural” forces that frequently work against rational policies. Progressives regularly bemoan the “ignorance” that cheap-labor conservatives are so good at exploiting to prevent seemingly obvious improvements in society.

In fact, the cheap-labor conservatives have counter-attacked with their own “rational” theory to justify their hierarchical world-view. Some call it “Social Darwinism”, though more politically savvy cheap-labor conservatives avoid that term. The purpose of this “rational theory” is to establish that the existing social order is the “natural order”. Elites enjoy wealth, privilege and status because of their inherent superiority. The place where this natural hierarchy is established, is that mythical place known as the “market”.

Justifications for elites and social hierarchy goes all the way back to the pharaohs. For 6000 years, society has organized itself into social classes. The people who do the work are always in the lower classes. The harder and nastier the work, the lower down in the social order you sink. The people who don’t do this work must justify their position. They do it by establishing their “worthiness”, and a variety of cultural devices have been concocted over the millennia to accomplish this. The pharaohs, you may recall, weren’t people at all. They were gods. Roman emperors likewise had themselves deified, and before that Roman Senators justified their position as “patricians”. Basically, “my great great granddaddy was a big shot, therefore I should be too.”

The middle ages gave us the notion of the “great chain of being”. Outside the earthly realm – in the realm of myth , that is – there is Jesus and the “heavenly host”. Just below the angels and saints is the king, followed by his entourage of muscle men otherwise known as the “nobility”. Since kings were chosen “by the grace of God”, they didn’t answer to ordinary mortals. At least they didn’t before Runnymeade, when the English nobility straightened out King John about where his power really came from.

This is the historical background for those famous words of Thomas Jefferson. “Governments are instituted among men, and derive their just powers from the consent of the governed”. Everyone has heard those words. School children recite them. Few people appreciate that those words repudiated 6000 years of mumbo-jumbo to justify the existence of social classes and fixed elites. Elites don’t get their power from the gods, or from Jesus or from any other mythological source. Elites get their power from the people they rule. Power flows from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Old habits die hard. In fact, we still have a “leisure class”. As capitalism has grown so has the wealth and privilege of our leisure class. The old mythologies – gods, the “great chain of being” etc. – are no longer available to justify the existence and perpetuation of our leisure class, something our elites are definitely interested in perpetuating. What was needed was a new “rational” world-view that justified the existence of privileged elites.

That rationalization came in the form of a brand new science known as economics, which included a brand new mythology.

According to the new mythology, human beings are economic competitors. The “marketplace” is the new “Valhalla”, where “economic man” frolics. The “market” we are told, contains its own “rationality”. It rewards the efficient. It rewards that list of virtues George Will cites, like “thrift”, “delayed gratification” and of course, “hard work”. Free competition in the market place “rationally” selects the more “worthy” competitor. Thus, the wealthy are the superior competitors who have “earned” their elite status. If you haven’t succeeded it can only be because of your “inferiority”.

Before debunking this whole ideology, a few observations are in order. First of all, notice that the hierarchical social order is back. It has a new veneer of “rationality”, but it is the same old ugly reality. Elites are “better” than you. The non-elites who do the work have “earned” their position, and are proper objects of scorn. Thus, we have a handful of haves, worthy of admiration and respect, and a large class of industrial serfs who own nothing but their bellies. The theory has changed, but the reality is just the same. Not surprisingly, cheap-labor believers in the “rational” hierarchy are hostile to democracy. In fact, they have decided that democratic government is an enemy to “market efficiency”. What Thomas Jefferson won through debunking the old forms of social hierarchy, today’s cheap-labor conservative is busy taking back through his new “rational” form of the same old shit.

And it is the same old shit. First of all, “hard work” is only a small piece of the equation. In reality, success in the market is about market position. It isn’t about what you do, but about what you control. The hardest work is actually done by people whose market position makes their daily wage minimal. The person who profits most from their labor is the person who owns the factory they work in. While there are certainly examples of factory owners who started with nothing and rose to be “captains of industry”, for the most part our captains of industry started out a lot further ahead of the game.

This is the difference between say, George W. Bush and you. Dubya went to prep school. You went to the public high school. Dubya went to Yale – ahead of someone with better credentials because he had family connections. Dubya had wealthy friends, through family, “skull and bones”, etc, who bankrolled his oil drilling business. Ask some of his friends to bankroll your oil business. Let me know if they stop laughing before their bodyguards throw you out. Even if you managed to persuade an investor to bankroll some enterprise, you’re going to have exactly one shot. If you lose, you won’t be getting a second chance. Dubya, on the other hand, went broke, and then his friends bankrolled him again, before finally getting him a one percent share of the Texas Rangers.

See how it works? People with money help each other out. They don’t help out people who don’t have any. Many cheap-labor conservatives don’t want to help out the destitute at all. They say government assistance to people will make them “dependent”. They say it breeds “inefficiency” and “laziness”. They say that a harsh “got mine, get yours” social environment breeds “market discipline” by rewarding the most resourceful and competitive. Some extreme cheap-labor conservatives don’t even believe in public education. They say it is the family’s responsibility. If your family can’t afford to send you to school, well, that’s not their problem.

Of course, wealthy elites shower their own with benefits – and enjoy a plethora of government benefits and services. They know the value of education, that’s why they keep expensive private schools like Andover in business. In fact, they do everything they can to give their own children every advantage money can buy, because they absolutely understand the value of a “head start” in the fiercely competitive social jungle they have created. They talk about “competition”, but they actually fear it, and do what they can to make the playing field as unequal as they can. Then they tell the wage earner that his position is “his fault”, and that he just needs to work harder – in their factory. He needs to more “disciplined” and “thrifty” if we wants to “get ahead”.

You now see how society becomes divided between “haves”, “have nots” and that peculiar new – but shrinking – middle class animal, the “have-a-little-want-mores”. But what do the “haves” have?

Here’s where our discussion of cultural anthropology comes in. They don’t have anything at all, you don’t give them.

Are you scratching your head? “What do you mean, they have ‘nothing at all’? Property and money are something.” Property and money are as mythological as Zeus. The first thing they teach you in law school – and I mean the first thing – is that “property” is a collection of legal rights. They are mental abstractions. They were created in more or less their present form in the middle ages by common law judges. They include things like “alienability” or the right to sell your rights, “inheritability” or the right to pass your rights to your heirs. They include the right to exclude other people from a defined section of planet earth. They include the right to subdivide or alienate less than all of your rights. For example, a person who holds “title” to a house, can “lease” it – that is he can convey the right to “possess” the land for a defined period of time, while he retains his rights that last “forever”. He only has that right, because the law gives it to him.

Under our system of laws, the ultimate owner of all “property” is the sovereign – the government. That is who originally granted your “rights”. Our system of laws and government defines your rights, and creates an entire infrastructure to regulate them. There are courts that will “enforce” your rights – that is send out the local muscle man known as the “sheriff” to chuck “squatters” off your property. Every state in the union has a system of publicly recording the documents that establish your “title” in order to put the world on notice of exactly “owns” what.

So, how are these “property rights” created? That’s easy. They are created the same way all mythological realities are created – with a little mumbo-jumbo.

“I, Conceptual Guerilla, do hereby bargain, sell and convey to John Doe and his heirs all of that parcel of land being more particularly described as follows: Beginning at a pin located . . . [insert your “metes and bounds” description here]. To have and to hold in fee simple forever and ever, amen.”

In the old days, if you didn’t use the precise “magic words”, you didn’t convey jack shit. The last I heard, South Carolina still holds that a deed to “John Doe” without the magic words “and his heirs” conveys only a life estate, even if you specifically say “To John Doe in Fee Simple”.

Perhaps you are familiar with that thing known as “legalese”. Maybe you’ve signed a contract – contracts rights are also myths – that starts something like this. “For and in consideration of Ten Dollars cash in hand, the mutual promises contained herein, and other good a valuable consideration receipt of which is hereby acknowledged . . .[blah blah blah].” All you need is to imaging a guy in a pointed hat waving around one of those incense balls you see in church.

It’s all incantation and ritual that creates, transfers, modifies and extinguishes “rights”. These rights are created by words uttered by the priests of the law. In fact there is an entire structure and system of pieces of paper with “magic words” written on them that create, transfer, modify and extinguish these rights. There is a hierarchy of these rights. Contracts rights are “private” rights created by individuals. Property rights are rights to the exclusive control of resources – created often centuries ago by the king. Now those rights are traded around by individuals, usually by contract, but occasionally by the laws and infrastructure that transfer these rights to the descendants of dead people. Why don’t your “rights” just die with you? Because medieval judges decided they didn’t. And that’s the only reason. The infrastructure for these “rights” is established by the legislature, and the limits of what the legislature can do are established by the granddaddy of all legal documents, namely the “constitution”.

All of the “laws, ordinances, customs and usages” that regulate control over resources and relationships between people – including their business relationships – are nothing more than a set of rules invented by the imagination of some human being – frequently one who has been dead since the middle ages. Those rights are frequently exchanged for – get this – printed pieces of paper with pictures of dead people on them. Where is the value of those pieces of paper? The answer is in your mind, in the mind of the person you are “bargaining” with – and nowhere else. It’s all a big game. It is our mythology, and it is no more real than belief in Zeus, Hera and Aphrodite.

The “marketplace” – the Valhalla of “economic man” – doesn’t exist without the mythological legal infrastructure. Change the nature of those property rights, and the very character of the marketplace changes. In fact, without the right to “alienate” your “property”, there isn’t a marketplace at all. Without a stable currency, laws creating a banking system, laws regulating the “money supply” and other governmental functions, the marketplace is limited to barter. In fact, the idea that you can “own” something you don’t immediately possess – say the way people in New York “own” West Virginia coal fields they don’t even know how to get to – provides the whole basis for that thing we call “industrial capitalism”.

Even your right to engage in a business enterprise with someone else is the subject of legal infrastructure. Partnerships have certain legal characteristics, and your rights as a partner – what you can enforce in a court – were defined at common law. [That’s the law created centuries ago by the king’s muscle men known as “lords”.] State legislatures have since created a variety of new forms of “business organization”.

“Corporations” are another mythical beast conjured into existence out of the imagination of human beings. These mythical monsters – really just associations of people who have traded one set of paper symbols [dollars] for a different set with different rights associated with them [stock certificates]. Or maybe they “lent” the corporation some of those “dollars”, and got “bonds” – another paper symbol – with still other rights associated with them. Lately, these “fictitious persons” – but really the people who control them – have decided they don’t need “big government” anymore. They control vast stretches of real estate, vast stores of raw materials, equipment, the buildings they are housed in, and they don’t want you, through your elected representatives, changing the game on them. They don’t want you playing the game either – at least not on your terms. They want you working in “their” factories, making as little as they can give you in exchange – lest you accumulate your own property and paper symbols and out compete them. Some of them don’t even want you to learn how to read – unless you pay for it with money they make sure you don’t have. That’s the game the cheap-labor conservatives defend.

Now lets take a fresh look at the words of Thomas Jefferson.

“That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

Can we change the game? Can we modify, regulate or even abolish those contract rights, those property rights or those business corporations? Can we use the power to “levy taxes” and spend money for “the general welfare” to do things like educate people, feed the hungry, and generally provide them with what Abraham Lincoln called “a fair start in the race of life”?

You’re goddamn right we can. Thomas Jefferson said so. The “market place” isn’t a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is a human invention, created by our laws, customs and institutions. The vast fortunes of our elites are likewise the product of a mythological legal infrastructure that bestows access to resources to some people and denies it to others. “Wealth” is just the latest in a long history of myths used to divide the world into the people who work and the people who live off of them. We created this mythological system, and we can change it if we feel like it. We can regulate it a little – or a lot. We can modify any one of its elements, or all of them. Or we can abolish it altogether. It’s called “democracy”, and you should now understand why cheap-labor defenders of the “haves” don’t like it.

You should also understand something else. Cheap-labor conservatives are great respecters of “tradition” and “authority”. They behave as if the institutions on which their wealth and privilege are based are “immutable” and “eternal”. They talk about “freedom”, until you challenge one of these “cherished” institutions. Occasionally, they refer to their “God given” property rights – which are no such thing. They are great advocates for a harsh and punitive enforcement of the existing order of things. They believe in more prisons, more powerful police, a stronger military, generous use of the gallows and then they denounce “big government”. It all makes perfect sense to them. Government exists to perpetuate the existing scheme of things – specifically the “eternal” institutions that empower them. But government has very little power to change the existing scheme of things. It has very little power – some cheap-labor conservatives claim it has no power – to create new institutions and new infrastructure that benefit anybody but them. That would be “tyranny”. And of course the existing scheme of things is the “natural order” – not the human created institutions we now understand that it is.

Here’s the short answer to them. Government created property rights. Government can modify them. Government created the very market place where your fortune was made. Therefore, government can regulate the market place it created. Government can levy taxes against some of your fortune, and use that money to build other infrastructure that benefits somebody else. Government is not limited to creating the infrastructure you benefit from. Did government create “corporations” to promote large scale industrial enterprises? No problem. Government can create the infrastructure for labor unions and collective bargaining. Is the industrial enterprise you own “stock” in discharging toxic waste into the local river? Government facilitated your ability to build such a factory, and the government can tell you to clean up your mess.

The cheap-labor conservative “minimalist government” social Darwinian world view is just plain bullshit. It builds a new class structure, which just like the ancient class structures, is based on a set of mythological concepts. In fact, those mythological concepts like “property rights”, “contract rights”, “corporations”, “stocks”, “bonds”, and even “money” itself are socially created to regulate distribution and access to resources. The “market place” is a human creation. The details of how it operates are determined by the particulars of the institutions on which it is built. It is “instituted among men”, and if its workings become destructive of the lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness of people subject to it, it may be “altered or abolished”.

Cheap-labor conservatives would have you believe that poverty, ignorance, and environmental destruction are inevitable, and “natural”. They are not. The only thing “natural” about those phenomena is the natural proclivity of cheap-labor conservatives who lust for wealth and privilege to visit those plagues on people. Cheap-labor conservatives say we just can’t do anything about these problems. We can, and we have.

More importantly, we have a legitimate right to rearrange our institutions, system of laws, and government created infrastructure to extend the benefits of prosperity to everyone, not just a privileged few. No less an American than Thomas Jefferson said so.

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