The Phaserl


We’re in a Boiling-Point Crisis of Exploitive Elites

by Charles Hugh Smith, Of Two Minds:

The “fixes” to the stagnation of postwar Capitalism in the 1970s were financialization, globalism, and the sustained expansion of debt–all have run out of steam.

Many of us have written about cycles in the past decade: Kondratieff economic cycles, business/credit cycles, the Strauss–Howe generational theory (an existential national crisis arises every four generations, as described in their book The Fourth Turning), and long-wave cycles of growth and decline, as described in seminal books such as The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History and War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires.

There is another Rhythm of American History that few recognize: the economic, social and political crises sparked by exploitive Elites. There are two dynamics that drive these crises:

1. The exploitation of commoners by financial/political Elites reaches extremes that create systemic instability as commoners no longer have the means to improve their conditions.

2. The economic mode of production that generated Elite wealth no longer functions, but the Elites cling to the failing system and enforce it with increasingly violent suppression of dissent.

Here are the previous Crises of Exploitive Elites:

1. Slavery, 1850 to 1865. Though the toxins generated by slavery are still with us, the existential political, social and economic crisis arose in the years between 1850 and the end of the Civil War in 1865.

In broad brush, the rise of the American West triggered a political crisis in the U.S. as the southern states realized the non-slave West’s rising political power would doom the fragile balance between the non-slave Northern industrial-economy states and the cotton/agricultural slave-economy South.

It was a trend the South couldn’t possibly win, but the South’s exploitive Elites refused to concede any of their power–and that refusal to adapt to changing conditions guaranteed the Civil War.

The first Industrial Revolution radically transformed the source of wealth creation. The plantation agrarian mode of production of the South was eclipsed by the vast wealth-generating might of the rapidly industrializing North.

The Southern political and economic Elites could not win economically or politically, so they attempted a military solution–a war they might have won had it not been for the Westerners Lincoln, Grant and Sherman. (Lincoln was born and raised in the frontiers of Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois; both Grant and Sherman were born in Ohio and served in Army postings along the West Coast.)

The moral tide was rising against slavery. The Christian world had long been divided on the issue of slavery, but the tide turned against slavery in the early-to-mid-1800s, both in Great Britain an the U.S. Moral turnings are powerful instigators of political crises, and once again the Southern Elites attempted to stem this tide with military force.

2. The Crisis of Gilded-Age Exploitation, 1892 to 1914. The dates of this crisis are inexact and open to interpretation, but in broad brush, the Second Industrial Revolution (mass production, integrated industrial corporations, the rising dominance of Finance and Industrial Capital, emergence of monopolies and cartels, etc.) forced millions of commoners into the penury of wage-labor while concentrating the gains of capital and speculation into the hands of the few.

Adjusted for inflation, the wealth of the financier-industrialists in this era exceeds the wealth of today’s billionaires, and is on par with the extremes of wealth concentration that characterize the last stages of the Roman Empire.

Commoners attempting to unionize were brutally suppressed by hired private enforcers and the police/military forces of the American government. Radical unions such as the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World, a.k.a. Wobblies) were destroyed by coordinated, concerted government suppression, much of it by means that are visibly illegal by today’s standards.

The conflict between exploited industrial labor and politically dominant Capital was eventually resolved by progressive anti-trust laws (aided by President Theodore Roosevelt) and the beginnings of social rights and welfare programs–universal education, limits on hours worked per week, etc.

3. The Great Depression and the Failure of Debt-Based Capitalism, 1929 to 1941. Capital was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the Elites in the Roaring 20s, but the commoners had new access to the financial magic of credit: banks sprouted by the thousands, anxious to loan money to fund the purchase of more farmland, new autos, and all the other output of a consumerist economy.

But alas, credit is not collateral, nor is it wealth. When the debt bubble burst, so did the stock market, which was based on highly leveraged margin debt.

The Elite financiers resisted writing down the debt that had made them so rich, and as a result the Depression dragged on, immiserating millions who then turned to fascism or radical socialism as the political fixes to the systemic exploitation and dominance of Elites.

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