OUR AMERICAN OLIGARCHY

One of the tragedies of history is the slide into oligarchy by societies that had democratic, or at least republican, ambitions. The Athenian democracy died, as did the Roman republic, as did the Venetian Republic, as did, more recently the revolutionary regimes of France, Russia and Mexico. Now it's our turn.

When a Congress starts doing huge reorganizations of the nation’s tax and health systems that polls show only a small fraction of the people want, when Congresspeople frankly admit that they are working for their funders rather than their constituents, when the electoral system is rigged so that a minority of voters elects a majority of representatives, then it is fair to say that, at least on a national level, we are no longer an actual democracy. 

When democracies die, they become oligarchies. Classically, dead democracies are called tyrannies, but practically, given the limits of one-man rule in a large nation, such states are oligarchies. You might even say that oligarchy is the default state for human governance. Here society is ordered not by law, custom, or voting but by patron-client relationships. You do favors for the big man and in return the big man does favors or you and protects you from other big men. Yes, it’s The Godfather, and most of the world runs so, and has been run so since the beginning of human politics. Democracy is an aberration, a sport fruit of the political tree. It requires tending, an expenditure of energy; it is not a hardy perennial. Democratic societies don’t work well if the people are not educated in civics and civic virtue, and especially where the distribution of wealth is too unequal, because then the rich buy politicians and oppress the plebs. The plebs respond by acclaiming one of the great ones to be dictator, to protect them from that oppression, and the rest is, literally, history. Plato described the process 2500 years ago, and it remains apposite today.

So, what will life be like in the oligarchy? Obviously, for the oligarchs and their families and retainers, it will be the sweetest life possible. Literature and memoir are rife with descriptions of childhood paradises at the top end of society. Personal service will return at scale, for there is nothing better (as the rich have always known) than servants. When there are no industrial jobs and a thin safety net, personal service becomes more attractive, even a necessity of survival. This change is already starting to happen in the US—personal service, especially in the health and the hospitality industry are predicted to grow faster than any other employment sector in the coming decades. Taking care of the rich is going to be huge.

We will not have to put up with those faceless bureaucrats we've been taught to hate, because bureaucrats are creatures of law and oligarchies are above the law. We will have therefore to deal with faces, the faces of our masters, faces like the faces of Trump and his epigones. We will have to solicit them for favors rather than demanding our rights. I'm sure we'll get used to it, as we've gotten used to so much lately.

Art will flourish, as it almost always does in oligarchies. The rich need entertainment; as we know from Chekhov and others, the great problem of the rich is ennui. All those people with arts degrees that everyone said were useless will have the last last. The rich will build palaces and palace have lots of wall space and gardens ripe for statuary. The explosive growth of the art market will therefore continue. The rich need to see and be seen, so we should expect a flooring of theater, concert music and opera. The old model of publishing having collapsed, writers will again seek patrons, as they did long ago, and add ass-kissing to their literary skills. The press will wither into gossip, because the oligarchy will tolerate no real dissent. Editors and writers will self-censor, as in the oligarchies of old and currently in Russia.

Does this mean a decline in artistic quality? We’ve been told so often that freedom is required for art to flourish that we may forget that virtually all the great art and music and writing we cherish as the foundations of our culture was produced by artists with no rights at all against the sovereign lord within whose territory they worked. The ordinary style of artists under oligarchies is praise for the great ones, combined with a bit of snarky satire. Self-censorship seems, paradoxically, to have a stimulating effect on artistic life: English drama was born in an era of brutal religious and political oppression; opera developed in Italy, the worst-governed area of Western Europe; no one in the 19th century wrote better novels than the subjects of the autocratic czar. So maybe we’ll finally get good fiction, art and films again.

For the rest of us, life will be calmer, more predictable, and duller. News junkies will have to find something else to do with their time, perhaps gardening. Crime will grow worse in the banlieus and favelas that will come to surround American cities, but it will not much effect regular people. The muzzled press will report it only to cement in the minds of the favored races the incurable iniquity of the dusky ones. Of the police terror that keeps those people in their places not a word will be heard.  Daily life will be wonderful for the fortunate admitted to the Green Zones: the rich, their servitors and enablers, and their clients.

The fate of the suckers who allowed the oligarchy to flourish will not be as pleasant. The Great White Dying will continue and expand. The oligarchs have no real interest in people who can’t contribute to their wealth, so the white lower middle, no longer needed in the economy, will experience a sort of auto-genocide, composed of mass shooting, suicides, drug deaths, and diseases associated with pollution, neglect of public health, and despair. On the other hand, during the twilight of the Real Americans, they will finally achieve the goals for which they sacrificed American democracy. Gun use will be utterly untrammeled, and maniacs armed with actual machine-guns will vie for the highest death tolls. Abortion will be completely illegal for the poor, although, naturally, any women with the price of an air ticket will be able to get all the abortions they want. The rest will return to the back alley, where their deaths will contribute to the dying already noted. In short, America will come to resemble Guatemala, with a scatter of Dubais and maybe a couple of Finlands, because there are liberal oligarchs too. That’s what MAGA actually means; that’s actually what they want.

Economically, the biggest change will be the end of American innovation. Oligarchs hate regulations, but they absolutely cannot stand competition. There will be no more disruption. Innovators will be bought out, or crushed, or, as in Russia and the old Ottoman Empire, simply expropriated. Government and the oligarchs will work in tandem here. After a while, no one will bother to improve technology, except the sort designed to delight the rich or to help them live indefinitely. Except in the favored cities, the slow dissolution of our infrastructure will continue, enhancing the American tradition of private luxury and public squalor. Living standards for the proles will decline, as will the markers that go with it: infant and maternal mortality up, teen pregnancy up, life span down, drug and alcohol addiction up, incarceration up, mental diseases up, and the rest of the grim statistics. We see it in Russia now and will live through it here tomorrow.

The American oligarchy will retain the principle of careers open to talent, so that a few bright and ambitious kids from the lower orders can reach the mandarinate, which will keep them out of mischief and demonstrate that America is still the Land of Opportunity. The Constitution will have to be modified, of course, but given the recent success of the oligarchic party, it shouldn’t be hard to call a Constitutional convention to get rid of pesky considerations like civil rights, the income tax, and direct election of the Senate. Since the Constitution was originally written as a means of smoothing relations between oligarchs, there shouldn’t be a lot of changes necessary.

But our oligarchy is still new; the baby has not been pushed too deeply under the bath water. There could be a revolt in 2018 or 2020, if the oligarchs don’t quite manage to restrict voting enough. If that revolt is squelched we will have to wait for excess to take its normal course. Unchecked, capitalism invariably wrecks itself because there is no limit to greed. It would take a 1930s type of economic catastrophe, perhaps augmented by climate change catastrophes to destroy oligarchic control in a revolution either peaceful of violent. 

Or not. Once established, oligarchies tend to be quite stable. Rome and Venice lasted for a thousand years. So it may be that historians a thousand years hence will look back on the American democracy as a brief and feckless interlude between the British American Empire and the empire of Donald the Great. We'll probably know which in just a few years.