Tuesday, October 6, 2009
The Predator State and the Battlegrounds of American Politics by James K. Galbraith
The metaphor of predation is evolutionary, and its origins are to be found in evolutionary economics, specifically in Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class, first published in 1899 and a classic of American thought. Veblen wrote that predation is a phase in the evolution of culture "attained only when...the fight has become the dominant note in the theory of life"
In the "higher barbarian culture', Veblen wrote, the industrial orders comprise most of the women, servants, slaves, and other chattel, plus the craftspeople and a smattering of engineers. These people are underlings, and they alone perform what in modern societies is called work. Only for them, therefore, is it appropriate to think of wages and salaries as compensation for the drudgery of toil. Those who are higher up in the pecking order take a different view.
The nonindustrial order comprise the leisure class: warriors, government, athletes and priests. Captains of industry are an outgrowth of the warrior caste, they do not work. Rather, they hold offices. They perform rituals. They enact deeds of honor and valor. For them, income is not compensation for toil and is not valued mainly for the sustenance it makes possible. Income is, rather, a testament by the community to the prestige it accords the predator classes, the esteem in which they are held. It is a way, in other words, of keeping score.
The leisure class is predatory as a matter of course: predation is what it does. The relation of overlords to underlings is that of predator to prey. The categories of Veblen's economics include prominently the absentee landlords and the vested interests, who live off the work of others by right and tradition, and not by their functional contribution to the productivity of the system.
The ecology of predator-prey relationships is one of mutual interdependence. Predators rely on prey for their sustenance, but they also require and must motivate their assistance. The normal function of the clan, tribe, family unit, or company is not to enrich the owner or master at the expense of the underlings, but to enrich him at the expense of the surrounding clans, tribes, families or companies. In this contest, the underlings naturally must enjoy some benefit both to motivate their cooperation and illustrate the success of the collective enterprise. The success of the enterprise also depends in turn on keeping the predators sufficiently in check. If in their compulsion to fight, they lay waste to the environment, then neither they nor their prey will survive.
Thus, contrary to Marx, in Veblen's scheme of things the industrial orders are not driven to the brink of subsistence. On the contrary: the success of the predators depends in part on a healthy prey. And to a degree, their prestige also depends on it. Wives and servants are therefore fed and decorated to reflect the stature of their masters; engineers are kept comfortable with "full lunch buckets" so as to keep the industrial machinery running smoothly. Since the lower orders generally understand this, those who are included within the program also realize that their position could be worse than it is. For this reason, they are not intrinsically revolutionary or inevitably destined to become so.
Veblen himself had very little interest in the process of social reform. Though he toyed with the prospect of a society ruled by "a soviet of engineers" he never seriously believed the conditions under which they might be induced to cast off the gilded chains of the predatory and unproductive classes were likely to take effect. And he died, in 1929, before the Great Depression started to give rise to the social transformations of the New Deal.
My father admired Veblen. But he was also formed in the Depression and by the New Deal and by the great mobilization of World War II. In some ways for his generation, the soviet of engineers was no fantasy at all; it was their experience of the world created during their youth. That world had virtues, including counter-veiling power and the mastery of advanced technology. Its vices- private affluence and public squalor, environmental decay, the manipulation of consumers- were the consequence of unbalanced power. It was a world in which Veblenian predation was possible, but in which the predatory instinct might come under enduring political and organizational control through progressive business practices, labor unions, government safety nets, tax codes and regulatory agencies, particularly in the fields of banking and finance.
But after the initial challenge of the Great Depression, W.W. II and the great post-war expansion, the project of taming the predatory classes through enlightened corporate governance and the partnership private and public interest gradually began to fail. Power was again dispersed to finance and the C.E.O's. This dispersion led to the reconnection of power with particular persons and the result would not have surprised Veblen: the reemergence of predation, predatory conduct and pathologically predatory conduct as the central theme in business life.
This is the Predator State. It is a coalition of relentless opponents of the regulatory framework on which public purpose depends, with enterprises whose major lines of business compete with and encroach on the principle public functions of the enduring New Deal. It is a coalition, in other words, that seeks to control the state partly in order to prevent the assertion of public purpose and partly to poach on the lines of activity that past public purpose has established.They are firms that have no intrinsic loyalty to any country. They operate as a rule on a transnational basis, and naturally come to view the goals and objectives of each society in which they work as just another set of business conditions, more or less inimical to the free pursuit of profit. They assuredly do not have any of society's goals as their own, and that includes the goals that may be decided on, from time to time, by their country or origin, the United States. As an ideological matter, it is fair to say that the very concept of public purpose is alien to, and denied by, the leaders and operatives of this predatory coalition.
The major battlegrounds of American domestic politics today emerge clearly once there is an understanding of the Predator State. They do not consist in the bipolar argument to which so much thought and argument is directed- that of "government" versus "the market". They do not for the most part consist in a perpetual war, as many are led to believe, over whether the frontiers of the state should expand or contract. Rather, they assume that over time, the role of the state will gradually grow. At some deep level, everyone with a serious role in policy debate agrees on this. The politics consists in a continuing battle over who gets cut in on the deal- and a corresponding argument over who gets cut out, and how, for there is profit in both cutting in and cutting out, and profit is all that really matters.