Krugman rightly denounces “toxic inequality“. One can say much more. Inequality has poisoned civilizations, before. Now it’s even poisoning the planet itself. And much worse will come if corrective measures are not applied.
Inequality is not just a political problem, it’s also a mathematical problem, with dynamics similar to the mathematics of Black Holes. If one falls too deep into it, there is no coming back. Contrarily to what obsolete philosophies said.
Here are the three ingredients of this mathematical situation:
a) the fascist instinct. The group pulls together as one mind once the group is under attack. That instinct is more than 50 million years old. It turned primate troops into effective superorganisms able to hold off predators, armed with war minds rather than dangerous bodies.
b) the plutocratic phenomenon. The exponentiation of capital plays a crucial role: the more capital one has, the easier it’s to get more, everything else being equivalent.
Rousseau observed: “Everywhere one looks, man is in chains“. Yet, total democracy is the natural state of man. Indeed, groups in nature are not under attack every day. Thus the fascist state (everybody goose-stepping behind the chief, and thinking, and feeling what the mind of the chief does) ought to be rare, as they ought to appear only in unnatural situations.
Hence, monarchies, tyrannies, aristocracies, theocracies, all types of plutocracies, are not natural states. So how come they keep on appearing? When the Roman Republic grew, it was continually at war, for centuries. Why? because it was fighting to death all sorts of plutocracies surrounding it. Not just Carthage and Hellenistic kingdoms.
When Rome was sacked by Gallic invaders in 387 BCE, the chiefs of that Celtic army were on a giant kleptocratic adventure; Rome struck them as a rich agricultural and herding area, ripe for plunder. Kleptocracy is also a form of plutocracy.
(After Rome paid a huge ransom, the Gallic invaders, were defeated and later annihilated, by the dictator Camillus.)
Plutocracies kept on appearing within civilizations, in the last 7,000 years, from an abuse of the fascist instinct and plutocratic phenomenon out of control. Both fascism and plutocracy are exponential phenomenon. Moreover, they are entangled: plutocrats discover readily enough that fascism is their friend, and that they can foster it with a state of perpetual war. A recent demonstration of this is the Bush’s Patriot Act. The instauration of this state of siege corresponds to rising inequality in the USA.
(In 1979 the income of the top 0.01% was 1.5% of all income in the USA; now it is 5.5%. This means that the wealth of the top .01% in income has been multiplied by a factor of 3.67. In the same period the income of the top 1% went from 9% of all income to 23% of all income. Hence the top 1% are 2.55 times richer. This is all paid by having the lower classes poorer than they used to be.)
The most successful societies were aware of the preceding pitfall, that deadly exponential of wealth and fascism. Thus the Roman Republic put an absolute limit on wealth. It’s no accident that the same Camillus above who defeated the Gallic plutocrats allowed the passage in 376 BCE of the Lex Licinia Sextia that put a limit on the public land (held by the army) that could be acquired by one individual (to a measly 1.3 square kilometer). There was cheating, though, by major plutocrats, and things came to a head under Tiberius Gracchus in 134 BCE. Basically, plutocracy was not lawful in the Republic, and the Gracchi tried to make it so. They failed, and the result was 2,000 years of plutocracy.
However, We The People, when ruled by the few, tend to revolt: see the American and French revolutions. Both succeeded, though, because their oppressors were too civilized. Lack of civilization has allowed the oppression to perdure more in the Orient, all the more as it is entangled there with theocracy. (In the West the break with theocracy occurred when the Roman army of the franks took control in 486 CE: it was a Pagan army!)
So indeed, to keep control, enters:
c) The Dark Side. The oligarchs, threatened by revolution, react by doing whatever it takes to stay in control. No brutality is high enough. See Syria. At that point, “plutocracy” takes its full meaning, as the rule of the worst, the rule of Pluto in all its splendor, the rule of the liar and the invisible, as the Greeks had it, and the astutely vicious as the French had it.
The USA is early in this general degeneracy. However, it is a massive society, and a model. Its faltering is thus of great consequence.
Faced with the infamy of the Dark Side Unchained, the people used to revolt. No tyranny ruled a Greek polis for more than three generations. then it was back to revolution, democracy, etc.
Polybius spoke of this cycling, 22 centuries ago, going through seven stages, as if the mathematics of psychohistory were rigorous. However, History does not always repeat itself. Polybius ought to have known this.
After the well named Macedonian fascist Antipater took control of Greece, Macedonian rule went on until the Roman legions defeated the Macedonian phalanx. Twice. So Greece did not self-liberate (although Greek armies helped the Romans). And indeed Polybius himself was taken hostage by the Romans (before he became friends with the .001% there!)
When plutocrats took control of the Roman republic, they were anxious to keep a republican façade. It would take more than eighteen centuries for constitutional democracy to return (in 1789 CE, simultaneously in France and the USA, the entangled revolutions; yes, no, Britain is NOT the “closest ally” of the USA).
Another example of non cyclicality is what happened to Egypt; after rabid men in black, the Christian monks ravaged Egypt around 400 CE, and burned the world’s largest library, Egypt, which had been a creator of civilization for 3,000 years, never recovered.
Passed a point, the Dark Side overwhelms all. This is what happened in Syria. Syria, fundamentally was just a very bloody hereditary plutocracy. Yet, offered the possibility of fleeing, and enjoying billions stashed away, as Tunisia’s ex-dictator Ben Ali does in Saudi Arabia, Assad chose to escalate the ferocity, well beyond what his father already did.
The same stickiness of horror happened during the Spanish Civil war, originally just a revolt by the Spanish army in the Canaries and Morocco (then leveraged by Hitler, Mussolini, Texaco, and countless American corporations).
After millions were killed, the return to normal in Spain was enforced by a decapitation of the fascist regime by assassination (when ETA executed admiral Carrero Blanco in Operation Ogro, the partial launch into orbit of the dictator), plus an incorporation in the European Union, under severe conditions (a similar scheme, a combination of force and negotiation, could be extended further around the Mediterranean to many a horrendous regime).
Nevertheless we have to keep in sight that the Dark Side, like Black Holes, cannot just suck everything up, but can be indefinitively stable. Whether we like it or not, and be it only because we want to survive, we are in a run-away tech society.
Hence the return of total plutocratic control now would be no cycle, but termination of civilization. Yet, plutocrats are solidly entrenched: just look at Putin, the ex-head of the Soviet KGB, now the hope of masses of naïve fools, just as his (spiritual) grandfather Stalin was in the 1930s.
Why would plutocracy be the end? Because, ultimately plutocracy reigns as the mind of one (or a few), and is no more intelligent than that one (or those few). Whereas democracy is the exact opposite: to exist it has to encompass millions of minds intelligently debating. (That’s why Obama, considering the sorry state of the democracy in the USA, has turned into the Professor In Chief, educating millions so that they can acquire enough intelligence to debate destiny in a half sentient way.)
And that mind of one will have to call to the Dark Side, darker than ever before, to master billions. There would be no limit to how dark things could get.
Plutocracy, entangled with fascism, is this world great Black Hole, and great temptation. See China rushing back to it under Xi. Plutocracy, entangled with fascism, will be resisted through massive force only. be it only intellectually massive force. As Obama just pointed out (in a particular case).
Many philosophies in the past, from Ancient India to the Mayas, to common men wising up, have argued for the Eternal Return of the Same, as Polybius did. This sort of metaphysics is in a way reassuring; do everything wrong, and it will turn out OK in the long run. However science has now debunked this completely: be it geological evolution, atmospheric evolution, biological evolution, or cosmological evolution, the only thing that does not change is change.
Change is your only chance, think accordingly.