Democracy — the rule of the people at the heart of the American political ideal — and plutocracy, the rule of the wealthy and the tumor at the heart of America’s political reality: both are looked on as very problematic things in wisdom traditions both Eastern and Western. A few snapshots will serve:
It’s too easy to start with Jesus’ views on wealth1 laid out in Matthew 19:21-8 — surely one of the most embarrassing of all Bible passages for wealthy church-goers. A “young man” asks him what “good things” he should do so he “may have eternal life.” Take it away, Jesus:
Jesus said to him, “If you will be perfect, go and sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Then said Jesus to his disciples, “Verily I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus beheld them, and said to them, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.”
(Any reader of the Gospels has to love how often Jesus does the equivalent of a forehead-slap when his students don’t get what he’s trying to teach. It’s the same old story in classrooms today.)
A quick glimpse at Book 8 of The Republic gives us Plato’s take, via his mouthpiece “Socrates”, on democracy and plutocracy (which Plato calls “oligarchy”):
Socrates: And does not tyranny spring from democracy in the same manner as democracy from oligarchy — I mean, after a sort?
Socrates: The good which oligarchy proposed to itself and the means by which it was maintained was excess of wealth — am I not right?
Socrates: And the insatiable desire of wealth and the neglect of all other things for the sake of money-getting was also the ruin of oligarchy?
Socrates: And democracy has her own good, of which the insatiable desire brings her to dissolution?
Glaucon: What good?
Socrates: Freedom, which, as they tell you in a democracy, is the glory of the State — and that therefore in a democracy alone will the freeman of nature deign to dwell.
Glaucon: Yes; the saying is in everybody’s mouth.
Socrates: I was going to observe, that the insatiable desire of this and the neglect of other things introduces the change in democracy, which occasions a demand for tyranny.
Confucianism in China, from over 2,000 years ago until very recently, also saw problems with both a system based on profit, and with one based on the desires of the democratic masses. This record of some Confucian advisors to a Han emperor in 81 b.c.e. about whether or not to encourage commerce should raise the eyebrows of Westerners to whom the concept of “sustainable development” is new. The Chinese voted for it 2,000 years ago, when they instituted their Imperial Examination System — an “IQ test” of sorts for anybody wanting to enter politics, which is something long overdue in America, whose rogue-infested and intellectually-challenged congress, Supreme Court, and White House argues the case for such a political qualifications test eloquently. (These Confucians, you’ll notice, have much in common with Plato on the problems of democratic “rule of individual desire” and oligarchic/plutocratic “rule of excessive wealth.” And is it me, or do they have much in common with Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian American republic, instead of a nation of shopkeepers?):
It is our humble opinion that the principle of ruling men lies in nipping in the bud wantonness and frivolity, in extending wide the elementals of virtue, in discouraging mercantile pursuits, and in displaying benevolence and righteousness.
Let wealth never be paraded before the eyes of the people; only then will enlightenment flourish and folkways improve. Lead the people with virtue and the people will return to honest simplicity; entice the people with gain, and they will become vulgar. Vulgar habits would lead them away from righteousness to follow after gain, with the result that people will swarm on the road and throng at the markets.
A poor country may appear plentiful, not because it possesses abundant wealth, but because wants multiply and people become reckless, said Laozi. Hence the true King promotes agriculture and discourages non-essential industries; he checks the people’s desires through the principles of propriety and righteousness and provides a market for grain in exchange for other commodities, where there is no place for merchants to circulate useless goods, and for artisans to make useless implements.
Thus merchants are for the purpose of distributing surplus production, and the artisans for providing tools; they should not become the principal concern of the government.
. . . . If a country possesses a wealth of fertile land and yet its people are underfed, it is because merchants and workers have prospered unduly while the fundamental occupations have been neglected. If a country possesses rich natural resources in its mountains and seas and yet its people lack capital, it is because the people’s necessities have not been attended to, while luxuries and fancy articles have multiplied.
The fountain-head of a river cannot fill a leaking cup; mountains and seas cannot overwhelm streams and valleys. This is why [earlier emperors] P’an Kêng practised communal living, Shun hid away gold, and Kao Tsu forbade merchants and shopkeepers to be officials. Their purpose was to discourage habits of greed and fortify the spirit of extreme earnestness.
Now with all the discriminations against the market people, and stoppage of the sources of profit, people still do evil. What if the ruling classes should pursue profit themselves? The Zuo Chronicle says, “When the princes take delight in profit, the ministers become mean; when the ministers become mean, the minor officers become greedy; when the minor officers become greedy, the people become thieves.” Thus to open the way for profit is to provide a ladder to public crime.
But that was then, and it was just Jesus, Plato, and Confucius anyway. This is now:
Source: Institute for Policy Studies, via Business Insider’s chart-filled “15 Mind-Blowing Facts About Wealth and Inequality in America“
The plutocrats/welfare queens/corporate socialism beneficiaries at Citigroup celebrate the current American and, in their view, global plutocracy as a “Plutonomy” in this report to their top-shelf investors. Jesus never said much about political or economic theory — so I guess he’d just say unto them, “no kingdom of heaven for you lot” — but the readings from Plato and the Confucian politicians above make these guys an interesting read. I’ve embedded the entire report at the bottom of this post, but here’s a representative snippet of these investment bankers’ philosophy:
Plutonomies exist, and explain much of the world’s imbalances. There is no such thing as “The U.S. Consumer” or “UK Consumer”, but rich and poor consumers in these countries, with different savings habits and different prospects. The rich are getting richer; they dominate spending. Their trend of getting richer looks unlikely to end anytime soon. [Because, they note elsewhere, the US, British, and other liberal democratic governments show no signs of any willingness to address these imbalances, thanks to lobbyists, the government-business revolving door, and campaign donations.]
How do we make money from this theme? We see two ways. The first is simple. If you believe, like us, that the Plutonomy exists, and explains why global imbalances have built up (for example the savings rate differentials), and you believe there is no imminent threat to plutonomy, you must in turn believe that the current “end of the world is nigh” risk premium on equities, due to current account deficits, is too high. Conclusion: buy equities.
There is however a more refined way to play plutonomy, and this is to buy shares in the companies that make the toys that the Plutonomists enjoy. . . .
Slavoj Žižek’s and Bill Moyers’ Uncomfortable Questions:
We’ve been playing with the problems, in a nutshell, of not only capitalism — you don’t have to be a Marxist to admit that our world banking crisis, our widening wealth gap, our dependence on and enabling of our felonious oil companies, and our vulgar and insatiable consumer culture all point to serious problems in today’s capitalism; all that takes is informed honesty — but also of liberal democracy. And I find myself needing someone to point me to any contemporary thinkers who can inspire my own flagging faith in its promises. (That’s a sincere request.) While reading up on Mao for my Chinese history class, I came across this quote from Slavoj Žižek:
What, today, prevents the radical questioning of capitalism itself is precisely the belief in the democratic form of the struggle against capitalism. . . . Yes, the economy is the key domain, the battle will be decided there, one has to break the spell of global capitalism — but the intervention should be properly political, not economic. Today, when everyone is ‘anti-capitalist’, up to and including the Hollywood ‘socio-critical’ conspiracy movies (from The Enemy of the State to The Insider) in which the enemy is constituted by the big corporations with their ruthless pursuit of profit, the signifier ‘anti-capitalism’ has lost its subversive sting.
What one should problematize is the self-evident opposite of this ‘anti-capitalism': the faith in the democratic substance of honest Americans which will break up the conspiracy. This is the hard kernel of today’s global capitalist universe, its true Master-Signifier: democracy. (Mao on Practice and Contradiction, p. 7-8)
And if Žižek is too rich for your blood, how about a former White House Press Secretary who recently entertained similarly dark thoughts about the fate of American democracy in his final broadcast on PBS — Bill Moyers:
I had no intention of writing on this all day, and I can’t even end it because I have no answers. I’ll just stop here instead, while it goes on and on regardless. Blame it on a conversation with graduating students last week, whose excitement about the future I found uncomfortably hard to share. If nothing else, maybe this post shows how history, philosophy, and religion — so often taught as dead abstractions in the classroom — are really everything but, when used as lenses on the present and future. So I’ll scratch my head as I close this one, and comfort myself in knowing that, if nothing else, the readings above might come in handy for some future essay or debate in one of my classrooms. —— Here’s that Citigroup Plutonomy Report.
- though I won’t be surprised to get pushback from some full-bellied Christians out there who’ve studied enough Sophistry to provide some wildly convenient interpretation [↩]