Notes From the Pandemic, Day 75

“Everybody is a Ferengi now.” “The high holy church of unfettered capitalism.” Both are flippant remarks about the current state of America I’ve been muttering for a number of years. Sometime in the aftermath of World War II, a significant percentage of Americans began to see and defend our capitalist system with a kind of emotionally-driven religious fervor. We were the greatest country on earth, therefore our economic system must be the best that ever devised. However, no economic system is 100% stable. A variety of forces are always modifying and tweaking it. Groups of people, as well as extremely powerful individuals, constantly compete against each other in an effort to curb the system’s excesses, exploit and enrich themselves further, or simply to make minor tweaks to remove value-neutral inefficiencies.

Since Reagan’s election, however, those looking to exploit the system and modify it to further and entrench their personal enrichment have increasingly possessed the upper hand. It was at some point during the second Bush presidency that the effectiveness of there efforts became undeniably obvious to many of us. At that point, this country had been experimenting with trickle-down economics for 20 years, and the data showed an upward transfer of wealth was clear and undeniable. The richest 10% of the country owned more of the wealth than at any time since the Great Depression (the situation that’s only grown in severity since then.) Yet, many Americans had utterly bought into the notion that our capitalist system was the best and only way to do things. That was when I first started noting the Ferengi and religious aspects to what the American version of capitalism had become.

The truly gobstoppping thing, though, was how entrenched this blind fealty to the economy had become. This has been a godsend to the new oligarchy, which cannot exist if too many people do not have faith in the system. Should that happen, they will rebel eventually, in some form. The best way to inoculate the system from such dissent is to convince as many people as possible that they too can be just as rich and powerful if they just worked hard enough and smart enough. You don’t need to convince everybody; you just need to convince enough people to prevent the system from being completely overhauled. So far, they managed beautifully.

There is no better example of this than Jeff Bezos and his sprawling Amazon business empire. Amazon is literally the kind of company that anti-trust laws were originally established to combat. It long ago became something far more than an online retailer. Its tendrils infiltrate and inhabit our economy in a myriad of ways: they control an an steadily increasing share of the global Internet traffic; it is a significant media company, in the entertainment business both as a producer and distributor; it acts as a middleman to anybody who wants to sell on the Internet; it provides data hosting and cloud services to some of the worlds largest companies; it’s one of the world’s biggest aggregators  of individual’s data; it produces news; and it enriches Bezos personally at the rate of billions of dollars per month.

This is the type of Cthulu-like, multi-tentacled business that should be keeping people awake in fear at night. The reach and scope of their business is quite literally inescapable. Yet, people to continue to act as if Bezos has done nothing wrong. On a literal level, this is true: he has done nothing legally wrong. By those rules and laws. He has just been a shrewd businessman, and he deserves every penny he has made. Besides, hasn’t he made our life’s better, easier, and more enjoyable? What is the harm in that? By the high holy tenants of the religious belief in our economic system, he deserves every penny he owns. This isn’t hyperbole, by the way. I witnessed it myself last week in the comment section of a Facebook post which stated the need for proactively taking our business to away from Amazon. In retrospect, I wish I took a screenshot to illustrate the point.

These people see nothing wrong or disconcerting about the fact that Bezos is on the verge of becoming the worlds first trillionaire. He is accumulating massive amounts of wealth on a scale unseen since at least the Gilded Age — well over 100 years ago — and he continues to do so at a time when the economic inequality of our system is wrecking havoc upon peoples lives in a way not seen since the Great Depression. This becomes even more repugnant when you consider the ruthlessness and immoral treatment of the workers in his distribution centers in Amazon warehouses. The fact that those workers are getting infected by the coronavirus at higher rates than the majority of the population is well-documented. Yet, he is going to slash their meager “hazard” bonus in June. Apparently, he’s not making money fast enough.

Yet, Bezos is just a rather large symptom of a system that is horribly out of whack and unable to handle the current health and economic crisis. The religious fervor of those that support the billionaire class has blinded them to the reality of the fact that they are rubes who have been horribly duped. They are like the character Rom in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, when advised by Federation officers to form a union and strike for higher pay. They refuse to acknowledge the full reality of their situation because they want to someday become the exploiters, even though the chances of that happening are realistically nil.

Sadly, this is just history repeating itself. The Great Depression happened primarily because the ultra rich got too greedy and in their efforts to enrich themselves created the conditions that allowed any major shock to bring it all crashing down. The collapse of the Weimar Republic and the ensuing economic shockwaves merely pushed over the first of a long chain of dominoes perfectly aligned to easily topple the global economy into disarray. A more stable and robust economic system could have better survived the shock to the system. This is not to say that there wouldn’t have been economic hardship, but the pain wouldn’t have been as bad. The same thing is happening here. The extreme greed and Smaug-like hoarding of wealth didn’t by itself start the collapse our economy is experiencing. However, it did mean that when the pandemic spiraled out of control, the system was horribly ill-equipped to handle the economic reverberations.

Frankly, it’s hard to see how the current situation doesn’t proceed along the path similar to that of the Great Depression. Even more disconcertingly, that event may even be less painful and trying than what we are currently facing. Aside from the rise in fascism and nationalism (look, more parallels!), humankind was not facing a slew of other challenges and crises that could very well spell the end of civilization as we know it. Global climate change, ecological collapse, environmental damage wrought by decades of a capitalism — especially in regards to convenience and disposability (planned obsolescence)… All these things were easily capable of eventually causing the exact same kind of shock to the system that COVID-19 did.

In short, what we perceived as normal for the past few decades (which, as noted before, was anything but constant or stable) is long gone. We are entering a new and scary period in human history. One that will require societal change on a level of magnitude that Europe underwent in the decades following the Black Death. Much like the nobility of that time, those who have most profited from the current system will fight tooth and nail to preserve everything they have achieved and “earned.” In much the same way the nobility ruthlessly (and ultimately unsuccessfully) used its connections to the church to bolster and defend their position from economic and societal change, today’s oligarchs will use the firmly established high holy cult of the American capitalist belief system in pursuit of similar goals.

Troubling and turbulent times lay ahead. In some ways, I feel like Sarah Connor gazing off into the distance of the desert at the end of the first Terminator movie. Dark times are coming, and it’s prudent to prepare for them. However the coming storm is like nothing that has come before. Short of becoming a full-blown prepper, how do you actually prepare to handle something of that magnitude? Or, is becoming a prepper the truly prudent course of action at this time?

Whatever the future holds, society has to become kinder and far more thoughtful. We have to be better than Ferengi, and we cannot allow ourselves to rely heavily on faith in that our way of doing things will just work out in the end. If we don’t, human civilization may very well be in a frightful state far sooner than many of us ever imagined.

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