Saturday, September 20, 2008

Throw the captain overboard

It must be one of the least controversial notions in history that people who assume a position of unchecked authority over others tend to use that position for their own self-interest at least as much -- though usually more -- than they do for whatever official purpose the position implies. For Americans, the concept is probably most familiar when related to the undertakings of government, due largely to the scrutiny that particular institution came under in the formation of their country, as well as its continued influence over so many dimensions of social life, right up to today.

But as ripe an occasion for abuse of power that any large, centralized government will always provide, the modern nation-state is only one avenue in US society where substantially undemocratic practices arise. In fact, much more than merely "springing up," such practices are in fact the basis of contemporary private enterprise, which is premised on the notion that a minority class should be entrusted with the fundamental workings of the society -- what is invested, what is produced, how it is distributed -- in the pursuit of short-term gain for themselves, in accordance with a theory which argues "public gains" will inevitably arise from "private vice." The public may impose constraints on the scope and nature of this activity through government regulation, but otherwise has no say in the matter. Whereas government is at least potentially democratic -- it can be influenced through participation -- the private sector is essentially unaccountable to communities, to employees, to the planet and to future generations; and, increasingly, even unaccountable to shareholders, for whose benefit the whole project is supposedly rigged; except, that is, through the indirect, johnny-come-lately hand of government, and at the level of consumer purchase -- also a very winding road when it comes to enforcing good behavior, though occasionally effective.

Well, that is a generous reading of theory. In practice, one need only scan the headlines of past weeks to see where responsibility for such a weighty entitlement -- the management of the economy for your own short-term benefit -- ultimately lies: in trillion dollar payouts from the public to their economic stewards for the explicit purpose of re-establishing their authority over an economy they lost by making it self-destruct.

So far removed from any sane conception of transparency, the underpinnings of our economy as it as been permitted to run are being handed back to these people because nobody else is in a position to offer an alternative. The public has never been invited to think about, or even understand, these issues, and the government has been paid to keep out of the way. A minority class has assumed the helm, and they have run everybody else aground, either by forcing them to toil longer and for less when times are good, or by setting fire to the ship altogether when they finally achieve their goal of eliminating any restraint that might stop them. Meanwhile the planet and its inhabitants are in various ways hurtled towards extinction, in pursuit of short-term gains for these few. Under the circumstances, one might be forgiven for doubting whether those who steer the economy even understand their own self-interest, let alone anybody else's.

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