Concerning Sotoligarchy

What happens when the rich and powerful rule the stupid? It's called America.

Since hundreds of thousands if not millions of our fellow citizens think that what people like Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, and Bill Maher say is perspicuous and persuasive, is it not plausible to suggest that the most meaningful political alliance in this country is between the rich and the chronically stupid? Rule by a powerful, privileged class of the wealthy and their dependents we clearly have, and we already have a name for it: oligarchy. But what about the rule of the stupid? Sot-archy? Perhaps our hybrid form of governance should be called "sotoligarchy."

Sounds about right to me.

This I know is a harsh thesis, even if it is not an uncommon one. Conservatives and liberals alike have been hurling the epithet "stupid" at each other like a baloney sandwich in a grade school food fight. So, I'll try to add nuance to my use of the term. First, I do not mean to imply that the "rich" are not also at times "stupid" (although the frequency and degree of their recent political and economic victories make me think their stupidity may be strategic and finally shrewd). Second, I do not mean to suggest that the rest of us (the not-rich) are what William Burroughs called "terminal fools." Michael Moore argues, in Stupid White Men, that Americans can't be stupid because he's heard them analyze baseball statistics. Unfortunately, the sad but clear implication of Moore's comment is that in all other areas of cognitive life we are stupid, or at least act as if we were stupid. Let us then qualify our thesis and say that by "stupid" we mean not "organically stupid" but functionally stupid in the political sphere.

Fun for the whole miserable family
photo: Staci Schwartz
Fun for the whole miserable family

We can be even more generous. Somewhere in that ocean of acute perception that we know as Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Proust makes the following observation. He says that the most common thing about humans is not common sense but human kindness. Unhappily, he goes on, our natural disposition to kindness is always defeated by self-interest.

This is something that has been observed time and again about Americans. We're a nice people, a generous people, a kind people. And yet the policies of our government are cruel and nakedly self-interested. In 1976 I was teaching composition at the University of Iowa when an exiled member of the administration of Salvador Allende asked if he could speak to my class about what had happened in Chile with the CIA-sponsored overthrow of Allende's government and the murder of thousands of students and leftists. He said to my class, "You know, traveling in your country, a person cannot help but be impressed by your kindness. But you do not understand how cruel your government is. You do not understand what you do to the rest of the world when you elect these 'representatives.' "

Or, the obvious example of the moment: We have nothing against Muslims in the abstract. We have no reason to be unkind to them. But since they happen to be sitting on a huge proportion of the world's oil resources we feel obliged to choose death and worse for them routinely. Our desire to be kind is routinely overwhelmed by our government's desire to act in what it perceives to be the self-interest (the gravely intoned "national interest") of the people it represents. Our kindness ends up expressed as violence.

Proust himself was always generous, or kind, before all else. But his native generosity became the acid of social criticism when his unflinching, unapologetic regard fell upon the cruelty of self-interest. He considered cruelty more than anything else just maddeningly, puzzlingly, infinitely stupid. The stupidity of class arrogance. The stupidity of anti-Semitism. The stupidity of homophobia. Time and again, he discovered the self-interested desire to be an aristocrat, to have wealth, or simply to get laid at the root of the most unspeakable cruelty. For the infinitely gentle Marcel Proust, deliberate unkindness, especially when motivated by self-interest, hurt him and angered him more than anything else he could name.

But I think we need to add something to Proust's intelligent observation. We need to add the further irony that we are wrong to think that cruelty functions in our self-interest. Cruelty does not work. In both the short and long run, cruel efforts to maintain self-interest have the consequence of making us conspire against ourselves. By acting cruelly in our self-interest we actually become conspirators in our own defeat.

You might call this the law of political karmic return. The CIA calls it blowback and figures it into the cost of doing business. I think it is more insidious than that. We conspire against ourselves in all sorts of ways, most of which are so familiar that they seem almost like common sense. The root problem is that all of our decisions go into a rational machinery, a social calculus of "benefit." Thus, the infamous "cost-benefit analysis." So we think, "If I clear-cut this forest I can sell the timber and plant soybeans for export to China, a very profitable move. But if I cut down the forest we may not have air to breathe or a stable climate in the future. Animals will be deprived of habitat. Species may go extinct. Oh, fuck it, why should my forest be responsible for the future when it can be profitable now?"

This is not the exclusive logic of corporate capitalists, although it was certainly the logic of factory trawlers when they stripped the Atlantic of cod from Nova Scotia to the Chesapeake, a grave crime against the cod (but who the hell ever thinks about what the ugly-mug cod need?), humanity, and the future. This is also the logic of Brazil's left-wing government led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Brazil's deforestation of the Amazon increased by 40 percent last year alone. To be sure, President da Silva's rationale involved the importance of a cash crop to feed the urban poor. "The Amazon is not untouchable," da Silva told The New York Times. This, obviously, places the burden of feeding the poor squarely on the backs of parrots and leopards. Meanwhile, Brazilian agribusiness kings like Blairo Maggi make conflict of interest a virtual requirement for governance. Not only is Maggi owner of one of the largest soybean production and export companies in Brazil, he is also the governor of the state of Mato Grosso ("dense jungle"). Thanks to the "prosperity" he brings, the Amazon will soon be just another fantastical postmodern location, so familiar to North Americans, where the names of places no longer have any relationship to what's actually in them. Mato Grosso will refer to a place that is no more than a factory for exchange value in a soybean monoculture, just as Illinois is a "prairie state" with 1/10 of 1 percent of its original prairie remaining. Of course, once the original plant/animal/human inhabitants are gone, we wax sentimental. The things we slaughter become our heritage. We wear feathers in our hair and go to summer powwows.

The jungle or the prairie, parrots or bobolinks—none of them ever have the opportunity to argue their own value as beings, things that deserve respect simply because they are. This reveals a grave spiritual flaw in their masters, the governors, developers, and agribusiness kings of the world. The ruling order has no moral right to rule because it makes its multiform daily purpose the defeat of the future. The logic that concludes that our "interest" is about "profit" assures a future defined by cruelty (usually rationalized as "collateral damage" or "incidental take"), but in the long run it will be understood as self-defeat. (No big deal. That's why CNN and the Weather Channel specialize in disaster. When our own defeat comes, we'll be able to redeem it as something "interesting" and "entertaining." Fun for the whole miserable family.)

National self-interest is indistinguishable from global legalized violence aimed at humans, the natural world, and ultimately being itself, before which our captains of state stand with all the wonder of a gourmand before a steak. They're going to eat it up. What if our kindness-defeating self-interest is only, from the perspective of the future, the repeated application of a rapacious and self-defeating logic? Love America? How could we ever learn to love something that understands its interests in these ways? Not even the ever forgiving Marcel Proust, for all his desire to find kindness common among us, could possess the generosity of spirit to love or forgive such a stupid thing.


Curtis White's new book is The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves (HarperSanFrancisco).

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