Check out Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman in the NYT on the response of both Wall Street financiers and Republican politicians to the Occupy Wall Street protests, aptly titled ‘Panic of the Plutocrats’:
It remains to be seen whether the Occupy Wall Street protests will change America’s direction. Yet the protests have already elicited a remarkably hysterical reaction from Wall Street, the super-rich in general, and politicians and pundits who reliably serve the interests of the wealthiest hundredth of a percent.
And this reaction tells you something important — namely, that the extremists threatening American values are what F.D.R. called “economic royalists,” not the people camping in Zuccotti Park.
Consider first how Republican politicians have portrayed the modest-sized if growing demonstrations, which have involved some confrontations with the police — confrontations that seem to have involved a lot of police overreaction — but nothing one could call a riot. And there has in fact been nothing so far to match the behavior of Tea Party crowds in the summer of 2009.
Nonetheless, Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, has denounced “mobs” and “the pitting of Americans against Americans.” The G.O.P. presidential candidates have weighed in, with Mitt Romney accusing the protesters of waging “class warfare,” while Herman Cain calls them “anti-American.” My favorite, however, is Senator Rand Paul, who for some reason worries that the protesters will start seizing iPads, because they believe rich people don’t deserve to have them.
Michael Bloomberg, New York’s mayor and a financial-industry titan in his own right, was a bit more moderate, but still accused the protesters of trying to “take the jobs away from people working in this city,” a statement that bears no resemblance to the movement’s actual goals.
And if you were listening to talking heads on CNBC, you learned that the protesters “let their freak flags fly,” and are “aligned with Lenin.”
The way to understand all of this is to realize that it’s part of a broader syndrome, in which wealthy Americans who benefit hugely from a system rigged in their favor react with hysteria to anyone who points out just how rigged the system is.
Last year, you may recall, a number of financial-industry barons went wild over very mild criticism from President Obama. They denounced Mr. Obama as being almost a socialist for endorsing the so-called Volcker rule, which would simply prohibit banks backed by federal guarantees from engaging in risky speculation. And as for their reaction to proposals to close a loophole that lets some of them pay remarkably low taxes — well, Stephen Schwarzman, chairman of the Blackstone Group, compared it to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
What’s going on here? The answer, surely, is that Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe realize, deep down, how morally indefensible their position is. They’re not John Galt; they’re not even Steve Jobs. They’re people who got rich by peddling complex financial schemes that, far from delivering clear benefits to the American people, helped push us into a crisis whose aftereffects continue to blight the lives of tens of millions of their fellow citizens.
Yet they have paid no price. Their institutions were bailed out by taxpayers, with few strings attached. They continue to benefit from explicit and implicit federal guarantees — basically, they’re still in a game of heads they win, tails taxpayers lose. And they benefit from tax loopholes that in many cases have people with multimillion-dollar incomes paying lower rates than middle-class families.
This special treatment can’t bear close scrutiny — and therefore, as they see it, there must be no close scrutiny. Anyone who points out the obvious, no matter how calmly and moderately, must be demonized and driven from the stage. In fact, the more reasonable and moderate a critic sounds, the more urgently he or she must be demonized, hence the frantic sliming of Elizabeth Warren.
So who’s really being un-American here? Not the protesters, who are simply trying to get their voices heard. No, the real extremists here are America’s oligarchs, who want to suppress any criticism of the sources of their wealth.
What I think the best thing of Occupy Wall Street is is that it finally puts the financial malpractices of an industry very much related to the actual top 1 percent of super-rich people in the US, in combination with their rescue by 99 percent of tax payers (i.e., the public), on the democratic agenda.
But the fundamental injustice in pretty much the entire Western world nowadays is the fact that the welfare state, a scheme for the public good, is being dismantled as a result of costs made to save the financial industry. An industry that through its own corrupt schemes, not beneficial to anyone but themselves, has itself created the greatest economic recession since the nineteen-thirties. They should not be awarded bonuses. And poor, sick and unemployed people should not have to suffer for them. There is nothing ‘left-wing’ about that. It’s common sense. That’s why I would love to see these protests spread to Europe, even though I myself am in favour of a regulated form of capitalism.
Finally – not from Paul Krugman – to point out empirically how disparagingly vast the gap between the top 1 percent and the lower 90 percent in the US is, check out these stats from Mother Jones. The first shows the composition of the top 1 percent; the second shows their wealth.
I mean, seriously. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of wealth inequality. But you don’t need to be a socialist to understand that such a huge gap between rich, middle class (if not already vaporized) and poor is not beneficial to any society, let alone a democratic one. And this gap has widened exponentially in the last thirty years, it wasn’t there before. The most fucked up societies are the ones with sudden, huge material inequalities. With the exception of the UK, Europe’s not as bad as the US in this respect – but getting close.
Michael Lind has an interesting political analysis up at Salon.com on the three fundamentalisms that nowadays mark the Republican right: Biblical fundamentalism, constitutional fundamentalism and market fundamentalism. I think this is a way of putting things that is largely correct. The Republican Party is now so far removed from any other political party in the Western world that it can only be described in these terms.
It does not explain, however, the seeming contradictions in this fundamentalist philosophy; for example, how can you adhere to a hardcore market fundamentalism along the lines of Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand, and at the same time claim to be a Bible-following Christian? After all, the teachings of Christ have nothing to do with considering selfishness a virtue. Rand, who along with God and the Founding Fathers is always named the greatest inspiration for every Republican presidential candidate, herself proclaimed to be anti-Christian in her ‘thinking’.
Lind also shows how the intellectual project of re-constituting a moderate conservatism as a political ideology in the 1960s led, by and large propelled by the rise of evangelical Protestantism and the presidency of Ronald Reagan, to the extremist fundamentalism that nowadays marks the Republican Party. All of the hallmarks of Biblical, constitutional and market fundamentalism can be found, for example, in the Tea Party and Sarah Palin.
What I’m worried about (as if the adherence to a triple fundamentalism by one of the world’s two most important political parties is not frightening enough) is the emergence of a similar kind of orthodoxy emerging in the Netherlands today. Whereas the Dutch polity used to be marked by agreement across the political spectrum on such issues as the multicultural society (in hindsight perhaps a bit too much consensus in that respect), political equality, tolerance for differences and care for weaker groups in society, the governing coalition nowadays seems to converge ideologically to adherence to a monocultural society, treating people with non-Dutch backgrounds as second-class citizens, and implementing a by European standards pretty hardcore market fundamentalism.
In other words: rightwing orthodoxy in Europe, at least in the Netherlands, is intensifying and growing more extreme just like it has in the US. The question is how those still believing in political equality, a rights-based citizenship, and a market tempered by government interference can defend themselves in an increasingly hostile climate, in which such very basic and once universally accepted notions are painted ‘elitist’.
Anyway, here’s Lind’s piece:
In contradiction to the hostility to Darwinism shared by many of its constituents, the American right is evolving rapidly before our eyes. The project of creating an American version of Burkean conservatism has collapsed. What has replaced it is best described as triple fundamentalism — a synthesis of Biblical fundamentalism, constitutional fundamentalism and market fundamentalism.
Following World War II, the American right was a miscellany of marginal, embittered subcultures — anti-New Dealers, isolationists, paranoid anticommunists, anti-semites and white supremacists. Russell Kirk and others associated with William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review sought to Americanize a version of high-toned British Burkean conservatism. While the eighteenth century British parliamentarian was embraced by conservatives for his opposition to the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, a champion of the rights of Britain’s Indian, Irish and American subjects, could also be claimed by liberals like Yale Law School’s Alexander Bickel, who preferred gradual, cautious reform to radical social experimentation. In its liberal as in its conservative forms, Burkeanism disdains reaction and radicalism alike, and favors change in lesser things when necessary to maintain the continuity of more fundamental institutions and values.
The religious equivalent of Burkean politics is orthodoxy, not fundamentalism. Orthodoxy means the continuity of a tradition, as interpreted by an authoritative body of experts, such as priests, rabbis or mullahs. The term “fundamentalism” originated in the early twentieth century as a description of reactionary evangelical Protestants in the U.S. who rejected liberal Protestantism and modern evolutionary science and insisted on the inerrancy of the Bible. The phrase is nowadays applied indiscriminately and often inaccurately to various religious movements, some of which, in the Catholic, Jewish and Muslim traditions are better described as ultra-orthodox.
The increasingly-Southernized American Right has transferred the fundamentalist Protestant mentality from the sphere of religion to the spheres of law and the economy. Protestant fundamentalism is now joined by constitutional fundamentalism and market fundamentalism.
In all three cases, the pattern is the same. There is the eternal Truth that never varies — the will of God, the principles of the Founding Fathers, the so-called laws of the free market. There are the scriptures which explain the eternal truths — the King James Bible, in the case of religious fundamentalism, the Constitution or the Federalist Papers, in the case of constitutional fundamentalism, and Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in the case of market fundamentalism (The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand can be substituted for Hayek, on request).
“There’s only one book you ever need to read,” a Bible-believin’ Texan Baptist once assured me. He was two books short of a populist conservative bookshelf. But in the age of post-intellectual, fundamentalist conservatism, three books are sufficient to make anyone the equal of the most erudite intellectual. The books need not actually be read, and for the most part probably are not; it is enough, in argument, to thump the Bible, and to thump “The Road to Serfdom” and “Atlas Shrugged,” too.
Modern American market fundamentalism, too, is recognizably modeled on the fundamentalist Protestant version of church history, even though market fundamentalists need not be Christian conservatives. Ignoring the long history of tariffs, land grants, military procurement and mixed public-private corporations in the United States, the market fundamentalists pretend that the U.S. was governed by the laws of the market until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal replaced capitalism with socialism (or statism, or fascism, or whatever Amity Shlaes or Jonah Goldberg want to call it). Russell Kirk wrote that any true conservative would be a socialist before he would be a libertarian. But then he was a Burkean High Church conservative.
The rise of triple fundamentalism on the American right creates a crisis of political discourse in the United States. Back when conservatism was orthodox and traditional, rather than fundamentalist and counter-revolutionary, conservatives could engage in friendly debates with liberals, and minds on both sides could now and then be changed. But if your sect alone understands the True Religion and the True Constitution and the Laws of the Market, then there is no point in debate. All those who disagree with you are heretics, to be defeated, whether or not they are converted.
For their part, progressives have no idea of how to respond to the emergent right’s triple fundamentalism. Today it is the left, not the right, that is Burkean in America. Modern American liberalism is disillusioned, to the point of defeatism, by the frustration of the utopian hopes of 1960s liberalism in the Age of Reagan that followed and has not yet ended. Today it is liberals, not conservatives, who tend to be cautious and incremental and skeptical to a fault about the prospects for reform, while it is the right that wants to blow up the U.S. economy and start all over, on the basis of the doctrines of two Austrian professors and a Russian émigré novelist.
I’m pretty convinced that in the end, political attitudes are not determined based on rational choices or a weighing of evidence, but are derived from mentality, or ‘character’ (whatever that may be). You almost instinctively feel drawn to a certain strand of political thought, and have an inherent dislike to some others. I, for instance, am naturally freaked out by most versions of conservatism, particularly when they stress authority (and want to impose group beliefs). While I may have a lot of factual evidence or logical reasoning to ‘prove’ conservative or right wing prescriptions for society are wrong, ultimately it may come down to the fact that as a person, I don’t wish to be told what’s right by some group or authority, and value individual freedom and open-mindedness. That’s why I instinctively don’t like conservatism or ‘the right’.
But where does that come from? A while ago, we posted about cognitive neuroscientific research showing that conservatives or right-wingers have bigger amygdalas – the part of the brain that regulates fear and stress. Liberals or left-wingers, on the other hand, were shown to have bigger medial prefrontal cortexes, which suppresses fear. Science Daily now reports about a new article in Current Biology, demonstrating pretty much similarly that differences in political orientation may be tied to differences in brain structure.
Individuals who call themselves liberal tend to have larger anterior cingulate cortexes, while those who call themselves conservative have larger amygdalas. Based on what is known about the functions of those two brain regions, the structural differences are consistent with reports showing a greater ability of liberals to cope with conflicting information and a greater ability of conservatives to recognize a threat, the researchers say.
“Previously, some psychological traits were known to be predictive of an individual’s political orientation,” said Ryota Kanai of the University College London. “Our study now links such personality traits with specific brain structure.”
Kanai said his study was prompted by reports from others showing greater anterior cingulate cortex response to conflicting information among liberals. “That was the first neuroscientific evidence for biological differences between liberals and conservatives,” he explained.
There had also been many prior psychological reports showing that conservatives are more sensitive to threat or anxiety in the face of uncertainty, while liberals tend to be more open to new experiences. Kanai’s team suspected that such fundamental differences in personality might show up in the brain.
Pretty much ties in with what you already know about people from certain political persuasions, eh? In my experience it does, at least.
Some caveats though. First, the liberal-conservative divide is very much an Anglo-American construct. While I believe that - in terms of attitudes at least – it corresponds by and large to the ‘left’ and ‘right’-wing divide in continental Europe (which, despite nuances, pretty much exists, let’s be honest), it’s not exactly the same. Where does socialism fit the bill, for example? I may describe myself as left-wing, but definitely not as a socialist, while some other left-wingers would. The difference between us is probably how we value the role of the state in society and believe in the necessity of material equality. But how could that be fitted in the fear/non-fear conservative-liberal divide described above?
Secondly, and most obviously, there’s the question to what extent upbringing and life experiences play a part in determining political attitude (and may perhaps even affect brain structure).
Interesting research though. It may explain why, even though you know and like someone very well, you still can’t get exactly to the bottom of why that person has different attitudes about something. Trying to explain that in terms of character traits can, I think, deliver interesting results.