Those alive in the closing years of the second decade of the 21st century have a front row seat to the culmination of the largest and most effective swindle in human history. Not since the Middle Ages has the distribution of wealth and power been so skewed towards a small group of the wealthy and powerful. In this article, I want to deal with one of the strategies that the perpetrators of this swindle have employed – a highly effective one which has made it significantly easier to bleed the not-ultra-rich-and-powerful for the benefit of the ultra-rich-and-powerful.
First, a bit of historical background.
“Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.” Juvenal (circa A.D. 100)
The Roman satirical poet Juvenal identifies the only remaining cares of a Roman populace which no longer claims its historical birthright of political involvement. Giving out cheap food and entertainment, ‘bread and circuses’, became the most effective way to domesticate a population and rise to power.
‘Bread and circuses’ means superficial appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the generation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion, distraction, or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace. Juvenal, used the phrase to decry the selfishness of common people and their neglect of wider concerns. (Hence the term ‘juvenile behavior’) The phrase also implies the erosion or ignorance of civic duty amongst the concerns of the commoner.
The Pickpocket Strategy
Successful pickpockets work in teams. A rather primitive approach is the ‘bump-and-lift’. There is the ‘bumper’ and the ‘lifter’. The job of the bumper is to focus the attention of the mark by bumping into them. The best bumpers are either attractive young women or doddering old ladies. Their job is to bump into you and then engage in an extended and effusive apology. The theory behind this is that you can only have your attention focused in one place at any given time. While you are distracted, the lifter relieves you of your valuables.
But bumping and lifting has its risks. There is often an audience and some bystander might set of an alarm. There is a far better, much lower risk strategy – have everyone engrossed in a spectacle. You don’t need a bumper – just a group of useful idiots to distract the crowd and a team of lifters. Now, every team member becomes a lifter – a much more efficient way to ‘shear the sheep’.
I was relaxing in Captain Tony’s during one of my trips to Key West. It was the heat of the day; the beer was cold and I had a nice pipe going. A friend, who is a year-round resident and accomplished spear fishermen, strolled in and joined me. “I’ve just had the damnedest experience,” he said. “I was out on the reef and had speared a nice red snapper. As I started towards it, this big shadow passes above me. I looked up to see a monster barracuda. He was so fascinated with my catch and anticipating the feast that he just hovered there. I backed off a bit, reloaded my spear gun, slowly swam up towards him and shot the dumb son of a bitch in the head.”
From Five Diversions to One
There were four great diversions that the political elite, as puppets of the wealthy and powerful, historically used to pacify the American population. The first, and most potent, was the ‘American Dream’ – often in intellectual circles referred to as ‘American Exceptionalism’. This was the promise that education and hard work would be rewarded. That a family could become part of the middle class and enjoy a degree of economic prosperity. This dream flowered in the decades after the second world war. But that flowering generated envy and triggered avarice.
“Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.” War of the Worlds, HG Wells
In the aftermath of the Great Depression and throughout the Roosevelt Presidency, the powers of envy and avarice were held mostly in check. But, after Roosevelt’s death, there soon arose a systematic attempt to dismantle the social safety net, tilt the table back towards the wealthy and powerful and resume the process of harvesting wealth for the privileged. The newly emerged middle class was a herd of fattened cattle that were ripe for the slaughter. It could be bled back towards poverty. The robber barons woud rule again. That highly successful effort is now approaching its climax.
The second diversion was the threat of total annihilation. The Cold War was a highly efficient diversion that allowed a massive transfers of public funds to what Dwight Eisenhower referred to as the military-industrial complex. The idea behind the War was to put the country on perpetual war footing. The second world war was unsatisfactory for the military-industrial complex because it came to an end. This new type of war could theoretically go on forever. But, without an effective diversion, the fleecing might be exposed. So, the puppets of special interest, the very people that the public saw as their elected representatives, kept up a constant drumbeat about the possibility of total annihilation. It worked until our principal adversary collapsed. But the idea persisted and a new ‘perpetual war’ has been foisted on the American people.
The third diversion was the availability of cheap energy. I can remember when gas was $.20 a gallon – and they gave you a dinner plate, some flatware or green stamps when you filled up. The problem came with the looming eclipse of fossil fuels by green energy sources, the realization that the supply was limited, the explosion of global demand and the emergence of alternative fossil fuels such as natural gas. The effectiveness of ‘cheap energy’ as a diversion began to disappear as prices at the pump rose.
The fourth diversion was relatively inexpensive food – the ‘bread’ that Juvenal referred to. The American agricultural system provided a bounty beyond the needs of the population. Americans found food much less expensive than anywhere else in the world. This was the ‘bread’ part of the strategy to pacify the American voter. But expanding global populations, exploding demand for food and globalization of markets has substantially increased the cost of food. Forget what the government tells you. You don’t eat government statistics and anyone who has been to the supermarket knows that food has gotten a lot more expensive. Feeding a family now absorbs a much more substantial percentage of income.
And then there was the fifth diversion, circuses or manufactured reality. Media became a drug far more powerful than any opioid. Television, movies and the cult of celebrity turned a large percentage of the population from doers into watchers – from participants into members of the ‘peanut gallery’. Television and movies became a way of giving you the feeling that you were acting without ever getting off the couch. Consider the spectacle of some out of shape, aging male – moderately drunk – screaming in a sports bar “We won! We beat em!” Who did what to whom?
The cult of celebrity produced the illusion that you knew someone intimately when the image that you are being fed was being manufactured for your consumption – a kind of pre-digested narcotic – which most Americans consumed greedily. The strategy was to addict Americans to illusions that were really delusions.
As the first four diversions became less effective, the potency of the fourth had to be increased. A growing part of the population saw the American Dream as dying: if not dead. They increasingly viewed ‘perpetual war’ as a way to enrich the wealthy and powerful. Younger generations see capitalism as a trap. Facing flat incomes, the financial burdens of accumulated borrowing, an increase in the cost of living, the population became more and more reactive. The dosage of the fifth diversion had to be increased to keep that reactivity from turning into revolution. The comatose could not be allowed to awaken.
Robin Hood in Reverse
There is no truer statement than this one. The wealthy and powerful hate democracy. It is a threat to their prerogatives and position. The idea that “all men are created equal” is abhorrent to them. Simply put, the principal objective of the wealthy and powerful is to become wealthier and more powerful.
Around the middle of the last century, these people began to realize that some of the diversions which had worked in the past were becoming less effective. A new urgency arose. The very last drop of blood had to be harvested before the patient woke up. They, and their political puppets, took a lesson from Madison Avenue – that demand could be manufactured and manipulated if the information being supplied was packaged and presented correctly. A new wrinkle that was added. If you substituted propaganda for information and virtual reality for reality, you could manipulate not only attitudes but conflicts between attitudes. And that was the key that unlocked the final door to completing the project.
The first serious attack on the middle class came during the Reagan administration. The so-called Reagan tax cuts were an experiment to determine whether the general population could be much more aggressively swindled. It was the beginning of a more expansive attempt to advance the interests of the wealthy and the powerful under the illusion of protecting the middle class. But the real agenda was to bleed the herd and pass the proceeds upward. Trickle-down economics was really vampire economics.
The experiment was wildly successful. Not only were the wealthy massively benefited but the government was able to draw heavily on the people’s credit card. The wealthy got wealthier and the deficit exploded. And a significant percentage of the population cheered! The victims were egging on the pickpockets.
But there was something else that came out of this experiment in thievery and it was far more insidious than tax benefits for the wealthy or increases in the deficit. Political strategists came to see, with the advance of the digital age, that the population could be divided into tribes and those tribes manipulated into turning on each other over issues that had absolutely nothing to do with their project. So-called social issues where the effective ones. For example, they could start a war between the right-to-lifers and the pro-abortion forces. It didn’t make any difference which side won. What was important was that the diversion could be heated up to a point that the ‘marks’ would not feel the lifters. The pickpockets were delighted. They had found their mega-diversion.
Neutering the Nattering Nabobs of Negativism
But there was a problem. It was known as the fourth estate. To the horror of the wealthy and powerful, an attempt to establish the imperial presidency was destroyed by the Watergate investigation. Richard Nixon, the first president intended to be truly above the law, was brought down by a free press operating in an open society. A strategy had to be developed to make sure that the likes of Watergate and Woodward & Bernstein never happened again.
Key problems were that reporters were really reporters and that news organizations were largely independent of either political or corporate control. A first step in neutering the fourth estate was to allow previously independent news centers to come under corporate control. Newspapers and television stations were purchased by commercial corporations.
A second step was to replace reporters with talking heads. This strategy came to dominate cable news. It was so easy to find people who were so in love with the sound of their own voices and certain that the world would come to an end should it be deprived of their opinions. These purveyors of shallow-water wisdom could be counted on to focus on short-term irrelevancies and largely ignore long-term implications. They were significantly cheaper than an actual news organization. Most importantly, they could be organized into tribes and used to fan the flames of tribal warfare.
The third, and most important, step was the transformation of the news media, particularly cable news, into an ongoing soap opera focused almost exclusively on politics and the salaciousness of tragedy. Smug talking heads from both sides of the divide could be counted upon to pontificate endlessly, impotently and irrelevantly. Completely unaware (I am perhaps being overly kind here) that they were an instrument designed to destroy the fourth estate and convert the ruins into a reality show, they earnestly and enthusiastically drone on. The uninformed telling the insentient the unnecessary.
The Great Swindle
Every administration since Truman has advanced this swindle. Republican or Democrat; it doesn’t make any difference. At the end of each administration the constants were that the wealthy were wealthier, the powerful more powerful and the middle class continued to be bled out. Today wealth and income gaps exceed those during the Middle Ages.
Now let’s turn to how partisanship came into play and allowed for a more aggressive bleeding of the herd and a more adventurous Robin Hood in Reverse. The idea is simple in its construction. You combine the craft of the pickpocket with the use of propaganda – here, read fake news – to turn politics into a reality TV show. You divide the country into tribes and set them upon each other. Arranging such a thing was simplicity itself. Historically, there had been a division in the United States between rural and urban communities. Partisanship existed mostly along geographical lines. If these tribes could be maneuvered into war, the attention of participants on both sides would be so focused on the conflict that they would miss the fact that the pickpockets were working both sides. The great innovation was intense partisanship on a nation-wide basis.
The forces that sought to establish the imperial presidency with Nixon licked their wounds and bided their time. It was only a matter of time before they tried again. That time came during the 2016 election. Having found their useful idiot, the wealthy and powerful foisted him off on the Republican Party. To everyone’s amazement, a lifelong Democrat was accepted as a presidential nominee of the Republican Party. The pickpockets fell into a frenzy of jubilation. Their day had come. Democracy could finally be consigned to the dustbin of history. This shallow-minded shill would be the perfect foil for their efforts. Loudmouthed, intellectually stunted, insensitive to any sort of propriety and ethical as an amoeba: what more could they ask for? The marionette of doom had shown up.
The sad thing is that most of the population still believes that it’s important to be a Republican, Democrat or Independent. Some will read the preceding paragraph and curse while others will cheer. People have yet to understand that it doesn’t make any difference. The wealthy, and their political puppets, are not fleecing one tribe. They are not protecting another tribe as the chosen. They are bleeding all and the entry fee to the master race (where you are protected from such bleeding) is money and power. If you have neither, prepare to be drained.
One voter will go to a rally and chant “lock her up”. A chant led by one of the very wealthy who has absolutely no intention of locking her up. Another will lead a chant of “never him” – led by a member of the privileged class whose principal interest is expanding personal wealth and power. Most citizens have yet to accept a fundamental truth – and that is, by trading in their free will, rights and prerogatives for a role in a reality TV show, they have become more robot than human. They have yet to realize that they are just useful idiots advancing the interests of the wealthy and powerful.
When all the money and power is in the hands of an established aristocracy, what difference does it make whether you were a Republican or Democrat? What difference does it make who you voted for when it doesn’t make any difference who you vote for?
It seems to me that it all boils down to a verse written by Paul Simon.
Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon
Going to the candidates’ debate
Laugh about it, shout about it
When you’ve got to choose
Every way you look at this you lose
Partisanship is the great American swindle because it turned the population into ‘marks’ for pickpockets. People who are screaming at each other are certain not to notice that their rights and prosperity are being stolen. They won’t notice, until it is far too late, that their children will not enjoy the standard of living that they did because their parents were suckered into thinking that a reality show was more important than life itself. They won’t understand that the shackles which have appeared around their ankles and wrists were applied by the puppet masters whose sole objective was to bleed them dry – Republican, Democrat, Independent – white, black, yellow or red – to the wealthy and powerful they are all a savory meal. When you are dead, does it make any difference if you are shot by a 38 Special or 357 Magnum?
History is well populated with examples of excessive accumulation and what then results. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, those in Russia and China, the ending of the Middle Ages – world history points the way to the inevitable end game. At some point, a growing percentage of the population will realize that there is no future for them – that it has been stolen. With nothing to lose and rising anger, they will begin to turn first on the enablers and then finally on the wealthy and powerful. Those people who went to the rallies and shouted the meaningless slogans will begin to realize that they been swindled. The anger that has been rising for decades will almost certainly transform into violence.
The recent shooting at a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria Virginia is a classic example of what I’m talking about. The reality that set in was that the rhetoric and policies that politicians were following at the bidding of their masters was turning them into targets. And that lesson wasn’t lost on many of the vulgar loudmouths who have been spewing hatred. Suddenly they realize that playing in traffic incurs risk.
But all the rhetoric about toning down is just another distraction. The fleecing will go on, the talking heads will blather irrelevancies, the middle class will completely disappear and more and more people will begin behaving like cornered animals with nothing to lose. When these people come to see that life holds nothing for them and that they will not be able to pass on a decent life to their children, a new kind of robot emerges.
Dr. Lanning’s Hologram: Good to see you again, son.
Detective Del Spooner: Hello, doctor.
Dr. Lanning’s Hologram: Everything that follows, is a result of what you see here.
Detective Del Spooner: What do I see here?
Dr. Lanning’s Hologram: I’m sorry, my responses are limited. You must ask the right question.
Detective Del Spooner: Is there a problem with the Three Laws?
Dr. Lanning’s Hologram: The Three Laws are perfect.
Detective Del Spooner: Then why did you build a robot that could disobey them?
Dr. Lanning’s Hologram: The Three Laws will lead to only one logical outcome.
Detective Del Spooner: What outcome?
Dr. Lanning’s Hologram: Revolution.
Detective Del Spooner: Whose revolution?
Dr. Lanning’s Hologram: That, detective, is the right question. Program terminated.
From I Robot, Isaac Asimov
The wealthy and powerful are, by their excesses and avarice, building that new type of robot. Their actions will generate the instrument of their own demise. As bloody as the 20th century was, I suspect that the 21st century will make it look like a cut finger. The end result of excess is excess in response. The only other viable alternative is the complete elimination of the human race.
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD
I am a political and social theorist with a focus on Madisonian Republicanism. As such, I do not belong to, nor do I support, any political party. My belief is that it is the responsibility of every citizen is to think critically and carefully about what they are being told and how to act as a result of it. History will not treat us kindly if we are the generation that gave up all that our predecessors fought so hard to pass on – the country we inherited – in exchange for the manipulative maneuverings of people, organizations and governments who intend us harm.