A Second Gilded Age

A Second Gilded Age

Would it be too early to sense a sudden, uncovenanted shift against the corporate ethic, if ethic is the word? I can barely turn the page of a newspaper or magazine without striking across either some damaging admission, or at least some damage-control statement, from the boardroom classes.


Would it be too early to sense a sudden, uncovenanted shift against the corporate ethic, if ethic is the word? I can barely turn the page of a newspaper or magazine without striking across either some damaging admission, or at least some damage-control statement, from the boardroom classes. The "Money & Business" section of the New York Times on Sunday, June 16, carried a graphic photomontage of two well-tailored wrists, cuffed from behind. Henry Paulson of Goldman Sachs made an appearance in Washington to call for drastic reform of accounting and oversight as it applies to business. Then Murdoch’s Weekly Standard fell on my desk, with a headline–"The Problem With K Street Conservatism"–surmounting its main editorial. The essay, by David Brooks, made some candid admissions about the differences between sheer, crass corporatism and the breezier kind of libertarian, market-oriented politics with which the right consoles itself on its better days.

Two of these differences might be termed strategic. The corporate world doesn’t care about an energy policy that might abolish dependence on Saudi oil. (Brooks spoke, in terms that must have cost him something, of the missed chance for "a large plan that would one day rid us" of such dependence.) And the corporate masters are indifferent, in their demand for steel tariffs, both to the purities of free-enterprise ideology and to the effect that such crudeness has on US diplomacy with Europe.

Behind this, I suspect, lies an even deeper unease about the relationship between the war against Al Qaeda and the lutte de classe. Historically and morally, wars that involve a general social mobilization are at least supposed to involve some notion of equality of sacrifice. This must apply at least as much to any war in which civilians are the main targets of the foe. The headline on the handcuff article read "Bush Doctrine: Lock ‘Em Up," a not quite accurate summary of the Administration’s policy on corporate malfeasance. Clearly, though, the White House doesn’t want to be caught running a fat cat’s war, while the citizens scrabble for crumbs. The number of those average citizens who now hold stock or have private retirement schemes–itself supposedly a proof of the very success of the privatized world–only makes the failure and squalor of Merrill Lynch and other outfits more salient.

In the second week of June I went to see Ralph Nader make a pitch in front of the Wednesday Morning Group, a regular conclave of conservative Republicans who gather every week to discuss the now rather problematic struggle against Big Government. This is not especially a corporate-sponsored collective, so he was to some extent pushing at an open door. But he undoubtedly scored some strong points by asking about the obscene payoffs awarded to fired or failed executives, and the "hush money" that is heaped on such people without any consultation with the shareholders. (I was there to make my own pitch about the failure of the Justice Department to act on the FBI’s recommendation for the indictment of Pinochet, of which more in a moment.) Even during the cold war, income differentials in America were a great deal "flatter" than they are now, and the aspiration for mobility was, despite the hype about the "dream," somewhat more realistic.

More to the point in some ways, Nader also spoke of the cultural values of the corporate elite, and of the way in which they seek to entrap children by spreading the net of addiction to junk food and brainless entertainment. By the end, there were those ready to applaud "values" as defined socially as against "value" as defined by the world of Disney. In the room were some who had worked with Nader against "corporate welfare" during the last Administration.

And this, too, points to a question that Nader did not ask. Why does the widespread revulsion from capitalist crime and social inequality not translate into a revival of support for the Democratic Party? I cannot think offhand, nor could I think later upon reflection, of a single Democrat who could have held that audience for such a denunciation or critique. And this is not just because, as the conservative columnists say, the people are more confident in market solutions, and more suspicious of intervention or regulation, than they used to be. It is because the Democrats are more beholden to the moneyed interests than ever before. Analysis of political donations by ZIP code in the last election cycle showed that while the averagely wealthy are solid in their allegiance to the GOP, a big slice of the ultrarich have become identified with the Democratic National Committee as exemplified by Terry McAuliffe and his kind. It’s probably quite apt, therefore, that the book to hit the stands during this odd period should be Wealth and Democracy, by Kevin Phillips–a warning against a second "Gilded Age," to be sure, but written by someone who has always been able to anatomize populism and class envy from a Republican point of view. If the Bush people are clever, which some of them are, they will be able to make corporate delinquency into a law-and-order issue, and thus keep the Democrats in a permanent state of panic on two fronts.

* * *

Concerning Pinochet: The Supreme Court in Chile has now accepted a request from the Argentine authorities to begin the process of stripping General Pinochet of his parliamentary immunity as a "Senator for Life." This complies with an Argentine judge who wants to question Pinochet about the murder of the former dictator’s predecessor as head of the Chilean Army. Gen. Carlos Prats was slain in Buenos Aires in 1974. Governments and magistrates in Spain, France, Argentina and elsewhere are now close on Pinochet’s trail for the murder of their citizens. Only the United States refuses to pursue an indictment against him, which has long been readied by prosecutors and the FBI, for the murder of an American citizen on American soil in 1976. In what respect, then, can the Attorney General claim to be defending us from state-supported foreign terrorists?

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy