The growing populist rage (see Eyal’s post) at exorbitant corporate bonuses, especially at the $165 million AIG gave mostly to execs in its financial products division, made me think of Imelda Marcos’ shoes and the 1986 People Power Revolution in the Philippines. For long years, the Filipino people had endured the brutal dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, who in addition to ordering martial law and broad scale political repression, had plundered the country’s wealth, including taking a cut of $28 billion in IMF loans. By the late 70s, in a country where 80 percent of the population subsisted on less than $2 a day, the Marcos family had accumulated over $35 billion in assets.
Tales of their profligacy were well known: the $5 million shopping trips to Rome and Copenhagen, the acquisition of vast patches of Manhattan real estate, the art collection that included works by Botticelli and Michelangelo. Imelda once reportedly dispatched a plane to Australia to pick up tons of white sand to adorn a private beach resort. But nothing quite prepared the Filipino people for what they would discover when, after a heady but peaceful four-day revolution, they stormed Malacanang Palace and sacked Imelda’s closet–65 parasols, 15 mink coats, 508 gowns, 888 handbags, 71 pairs of sunglasses and, most legendarily, 1,060 pairs of shoes.
What was so potent about those shoes? What did they symbolize? Gross inequality, corruption, the staggeringly brazen looting of public resources–for sure (all qualities also evident in the AIG bailout). But something else too was represented by that collection of ruby slippers, a kind of insane magic by which Imelda transformed herself into something more than human. She could never wear all those shoes. They were beyond utility or even fashion. They existed only to represent the idea of excess itself, like The Simpson‘s Montgomery Burns’ wardrobe made from the pelts of endangered species. As Time‘s Lance Morrow wrote at the time:
The Russian word poshlost suggests the transcendent vulgarity at work in the Marcos spectacle. Poshlost is something preposterously overdone but without self-knowledge or irony. It is comic and sad and awful.
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Of course, Imelda had her rationale; she insisted it was her "duty" to be "some kind of light, a star to give [the poor] guidelines." But even that explanation expresses a contempt for humanity, an aspiration to be above the human, like a divine queen, beyond ordinary standards of wealth or footwear.
Something like this logic underlies the corporate elite’s defense of unfettered multi-million dollar bonuses. Before he was forced to grovel in front of Congress, AIG CEO Edward Liddy explained that those bonuses were necessary to "retain the best and brightest" and hinted darkly at what would happen if "their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the US Treasury."
Put aside the fact that AIG’s "best and brightest" helped destroy the global economy and ask yourself this–what kind of work could merit a $6.4 million bonus (what one AIG manager received)? What could a CEO do to deserve $25.4 million (the severance package that Liddy’s predecessor Martin Sullivan got when he left AIG, having lost 99 percent of the company’s market value during his tenure)? Or what exactly did John Thain, CEO of the now defunct Merrill Lynch, accomplish to warrant an executive compensation package of $83.1 million in 2007? And why should such sums be exempt from regulation and fair taxation, much less plausible public justification?
[CLARIFICATION: John Thain’s office called to clarify that in 2007, Thain only received roughly $50,000 in salary for one month of work and a $15 million signing bonus. The remainder of his compensation package, stock options once valued at some $68 million, is now worthless.]
These are preposterous, abstract figures that have long since lost any relation to what even the most gluttonous among us might call "quality of life." What the corporate elite seeks to preserve is not any explicable measure of work and worth, but rather the right to transcend with impunity any measure of value itself, for the right of kings to pin multi-million bonuses on princes as badges of relative privilege, for the right to hoard 1,060 pairs of shoes.
When the American people rage against the AIG bonuses and the Chrysler execs and their jet planes, I believe they are, in part, railing against this gross form of divine capitalism, a capitalism so venal that it has degenerated into aristocracy. What this populist anger accomplishes, whether it strikes the root as well as the glittering crown, will depend on a lot of things–whether or not Obama is pushed to nationalize the banks, open the books on the bailout and rein in corporate excess; whether or not workers are given the renewed right to organize.
It also depends on us. For there are many things different about this moment and the Philippines in 1986 (not least among them the democratic rights we still enjoy here), but among them is the fact that in the here and now the excesses of the elite have been exposed before the fall of the regime itself. We have yet to sack the palace. Maybe we should–who knows what else we might find there.