Are we citizens? Or peasants?

This financial crisis has revealed much about America.  About the operation of our government.  About our ruling elites, and what they consider important — and who they believe should pay for their mistakes.  And about the American public.  Our passivity and ignorance (don’t know, don’t care).

If we choose to be sheep the best we can hope to get is a shepard.  More likely we will get wolves.  This is the natural order of things, and neither shepards or wolves are criminals.  The most common reaction to these hard facts has been to whine about it.  Perhaps instead we should consider not being sheep.

Some prominent conservatives analyze the situation

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the crisis has been that of prominent conservatives.  As we see in this conclave talking on the Glenn Beck Program:  “Destined to Repeat“, Fox News, 10 April 2009 — Red emphasis added.  Excerpt:

GLENN BECK, HOST: There are undeniable parallels between what has happened in the past on our planet and what is going on today. And tonight, we’re going to cover a lot of them. I hope that you come away from tonight’s program with a deeper understanding of how some of the most infamous events in history started with the best of intentions. …

BECK: All right. Our country is not being controlled by jackbooted fascists. But like I said, during George W. Bush’s term, the groundwork is continuously being laid to take us there if the train goes off the tracks. History shows us that it only takes two simple things for fascism to rear its ugly head, and it can happen virtually overnight: fear and hunger.  A temporary crisis is almost always a precursor to a much, much more permanent one.

So, with that in mind, let me show you the four main things that we’re going to be talking about tonight. First, we’re going to take you to Russia, where under communists like Lenin and Stalin, their revolution pitted peasants against the rich, the poor against the wealthy. They were basically saying, “Eat the rich! They did this to you! Get them! Kill them!”

These days, the comparison, demonstrators are rioting in front of the G20, unions protesting in front of AIG, an organized mob, buses showing up at the houses of the evil AIG executives. It’s a different style, but the sentiments are exactly the same — find ‘em, get ‘em, kill ‘em! They did this to you!

RGELLATELY, AUTHOR, “LENIN, STALIN & HITLER”: Well, the Russian Revolution came at the end of disastrous First World War, and the people were hungry and there was a great desire to get out of the war. Lenin came back to Russia — brought there by the Germans, incidentally — to try to bring about a revolution, and he did it cunningly by offering poor peasants land, people bread, and the army peace. And with those three slogans, he managed to obtain rather quickly and easily victory for the Bolshevik Revolution in October — old style, October 1917.

Now, what happened after that, of course, is that there was a war was in the countryside and basically he promised the land to the poor peasants, who were then invited to take land from the churches, from nobility that were better off. And what they did, of course, was think actually that the communists were going to let them keep the land. So, they became firm backers of the Russian Revolution, the poor peasants believing that now the land that they thought was rightly theirs for so long now was theirs finally to keep.

But of course, that was complete illusion, and within no time at all, the situation went from bad to worse. So, think what would happen if you draw off the best farmers, you kill off the best farmers — what do you think is going to happen next? What happens next is a famine.

BECK: And that’s exactly what happened. And I see this parallel with AIG and then the bankers and everything else — hate them, hate them, they did this to you, you’ve got to get them, you know, kill them off, put them in jail, take their money, whatever. Who is going to run these things? There are — they have expertise that most don’t.

Let me — let me go to Amity. Do you have any or anybody — is anybody watching the news today and seeing things that don’t have to repeat? But when you, as a historian, and you know history, don’t you look at today and go — wait, wait, wait? Everybody knows what we’re doing, right? Everyone is aware this is dangerous territory that we’re — that we’re walking down.

AMITY SHLAES, AUTHOR, “THE FORGOTTEN MAN”: Yes, Glenn, there is a variant of what you said before — politicians who can’t remember the past condemn the rest of us to repeat it. So, you get the feeling in Washington, they haven’t thought about what government can do before. I prefer to call it “statism,” the ever-expanding state what we’re talking about, which then corrupts, when then sometimes leads to war. And yes, I see, when we look at companies and blame them, no good outcome because those companies are also often the source of our prosperity and our return to prosperity.

So, you can be mad at certain AIG executives that they didn’t forego their bonus or that they were too lawyerly in writing it all out this winter and tricking people with Congress. And yes, there are bad people at all companies, but if we blame AIG, we also hurt a lot of other companies.

For an analysis of Amity Shlaes brand of economics see An important and politically significant guide to the Great Depression (30 April 2009).

I recommend reading the complete transcript to take a full measure of its nuttiness.  We have gone through the greatest financial crisis since the 1930’s — the first global recession (wars do not count) — and there these people show no awareness of the need for fundamental reforms.   Also, comparing America to the last days of the Czars is nuts.

Most bizarre:   in response to tepid discussion of changes, they invoke the ghosts of Communism and Fascism.  Revolution and famine.  If we jail some senior bankers, our system will collapse because nobody else can run those institutions.  This is too crack-pot for serious analysis, but Matt Taibbi does find important meaning in it for all of us.

A reasonable person’s remarks about these conservatives’ analysis

Excerpt from “The peasant mentality lives on in America“, Matt Taibbi, posted at The Smirking Chimp, 14 April 2009:

This must be a terrible time to be a right-winger. A vicious paradox has been thrust upon the once-ascendant conservatives. On the one hand they are out of power, and so must necessarily rail against the Obama administration. On the other hand they have to vilify, as dangerous anticapitalist activity, the grass-roots protests against the Geithner bailouts and the excess of companies like AIG. That leaves them with no recourse but to dream up wholesale lunacies along the lines of Glenn Beck’s recent “Fascism With a Happy Face” rants, which link the protesting “populists” and the Obama adminstration somehow and imagine them as one single nefarious, connected, ongoing effort to install a totalitarian regime.

This is not a simple rhetorical accomplishment. It requires serious mental gymnastics to describe the Obama administration — particularly the Obama administration of recent weeks, which has given away billions to Wall Street and bent over backwards to avoid nationalization and pursue a policy that preserves the private for-profit status of the bailed-out banks — as a militaristic dictatorship of anti-wealth, anti-private property forces. You have to somehow explain the Geithner/Paulson decisions to hand over trillions of taxpayer dollars to the rich bankers as the formal policy expression of progressive rage against the rich. Not easy.

… It’s been strange and kind of depressing to watch the conservative drift in this direction. In a way, actually, the Glenn Beck show has been drearily fascinating of late. It’s not often that we get to watch someone go insane on national television …

After all, the reason the winger crowd can’t find a way to be coherently angry right now is because this country has no healthy avenues for genuine populist outrage. It never has. The setup always goes the other way: when the excesses of business interests and their political proteges in Washington leave the regular guy broke and screwed, the response is always for the lower and middle classes to split down the middle and find reasons to get pissed off not at their greedy bosses but at each other. That’s why even people like Beck’s audience, who I’d wager are mostly lower-income people, can’t imagine themselves protesting against the Wall Street barons who in actuality are the ones who fucked them over.

… But actual rich people can’t ever be the target. It’s a classic peasant mentality: going into fits of groveling and bowing whenever the master’s carriage rides by, then fuming against the Turks in Crimea or the Jews in the Pale or whoever after spending fifteen hard hours in the fields. You know you’re a peasant when you worship the very people who are right now, this minute, conning you and taking your shit.

Whatever the master does, you’re on board. When you get frisky, he sticks a big cross in the middle of your village, and you spend the rest of your life praying to it with big googly eyes. Or he puts out newspapers full of innuendo about this or that faraway group and you immediately salute and rush off to join the hate squad. A good peasant is loyal, simpleminded, and full of misdirected anger.

And that’s what we’ve got now, a lot of misdirected anger searching around for a non-target to mis-punish — can’t be mad at AIG, can’t be mad at Citi or Goldman Sachs. The real villains have to be the anti-AIG protesters! After all, those people earned those bonuses! If ever there was a textbook case of peasant thinking, it’s struggling middle-class Americans burned up in defense of taxpayer-funded bonuses to millionaires. It’s really weird stuff. And bound to get weirder, I imagine, as this crisis gets worse and more complicated.


This puts America in a tough spot.  The core of the loyal opposition has gone crazy.  The Administration in power continues the policies of the old Administration.  To whom do we turn if the economy fails to recover in the second half of 2009?  To ourselves.  It’s our government.  It’s our nation.  It’s our responsibility.

Originally published at Fabius Maximus and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

5 Responses to "Are we citizens? Or peasants?"

  1. Anonymous   May 21, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    Matt Taibbi consistently does a fine job of summing up and decyphering the ludicrous yammerings of the financial kingpins and their sycophants in the media. I think I was first exposed to Matt when he was a guest on Ian Masters'”Live from the Left Coast” on Pacifica station KPFK in Los Angeles (same place I first heard Nouriel Roubini, thank goodness, or I would be in the “401K is now a 201K” situation). Matt skewered the Bush Admin crony profiteers in Iraq at the time. His commentary on the Paulson-managed looting of the TARP funds was unflinching. I hope he will do a piece on the situation in California. Fabius Maximus, thanks for joining in on de-bunking the Glenn Beck gang’s bizarre faux-correlations of historical events.

  2. Guest   June 1, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    First, how many intelligent educated people actually watch Fox news? Except for comedy?Glenn Beck Program: “Destined to Repeat“, is simply full of fallacies especially, Weak Analogy is one, comparing a,b,c attributes concludes in a z solution, fallacy # 1. Suppressed evidence another. Not an educated person, not surprised he has a show on Fox.Second who would really get mad at this? Its a waste of time.Third, the wealthy at least 4 billionaires, are and have been extremely worried about the economy, they are publishing and speaking and giving advice. It is simple, during a recession, they have more money to lose.They are not happy with the way thins are either, how many humans out there get satisfaction from cutting their labor force, knowing it will hurt their families? This is not the monarchs of the old days, today’s modern wealthy got there because they understand/ know how to help society. Oprah and Bill Gates, and many more…..This recession is only only thing at fault, companies lost focus of the basic economic fundamentals, seeking to profit in ways that are not mathematically logical. Sure, the war and the deficit are second place contenders.People are much smarter than what these two articles portray, before Bush’s bailout plan, CNN received so much many responses from citizens that were angry Fat Cats in New York where getting bailed out and CNN directed all of the attention straight to congress, where the avalanche of angry citizens letters and phone calls hit them in massive waves, although congress and the senate where convinced this would be worse than the Depression…..Republicans should sit down and shut up, they had 8 years.