Friday, August 7, 2009

More Notes on the "Divide"

Several posts on Ghulf Genes deal with economics, always in a more or less cultural context; I tend to deal with the subject at a more technical/practical level on LaMarotte. Two entries in particular, one on wealth and one on disposable income have touched upon what I perceive as a gradually evolving divide in society. In both of these cases the mere presentation of the data consumed the space that I allocate per entry, a kind of limit I impose based on personal habits of reading things on a screen: too long and I get restless. But a consequence of that limitation is that I never get to the point that I am after, which is to ponder the underlying factors that produce the situation I spend so much time describing.

As I look back fifty years or so, it seems to me that the great divide began to open up at around the time when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. Certainly from the time when I arrived here as an immigrant in 1951 until 1989 when the wall fell, the country underwent a kind of cultural winter. The spontaneous development, the natural life-cycle, of our civilization was suspended during that time—and resumed when the threat of the Communist menace retreated. Ample signs of relaxation began to appear in the early 1960s already, usually associated with youth and hippies. But at the more organized levels of society, the release of tensions awaited the Reagan years. And afterwards Western Civilization—more here than in Europe—resumed its natural vector. All right. This is a personal take. The official or ambient narrative is still that of Progress. Therefore whatever comes out of the future is by definition better, and the coming of the New World Order, the avalanche of technology, the waves of commercialization, the rights revolutions falling over themselves in a rush to ecstatic fulfillment—all this is viewed in positive ways. I try to view all this, including the dangerous cleft I see opening in the society, in a neutral way: before a higher civilization is rooted, the old one must pass away. Hence I ought to praise all signs of breakup. The sooner done, the sooner over. At the same time, I foresee that the future will be ugly; from a strictly rational point of view, I’d like to get there with as little damage to as many people as possible.

The core aspect of the divide, as I see it, is the disaffiliation of the major elements of the society, particularly of the haves and the have nots, a cultural-war in the making. The onset of this cleavage is clearly visible in the sharp drop in marginal tax rates applicable to the wealthy that took place during the Reagan administration. The rate fell by 30 percentage points in the 1981-1989 period. To see a quite revealing graphic showing fifty years of tax rates, I refer you to my post today on LaMarotte. In that post I also argue that high taxes benefit the whole population whereas low taxes benefit elites—another way to talk about the cultural cleavage.
One makes these observations because the picture that opens is fascinating. The practical aspects of such a blog, I fear, are nil. I’m engaged in contemplation rather than advocacy. The phenomena that I’m observing are beyond personal influence, as I think currently unfolding history will show. But what it is likely to show, in the longer reach, will be, I think, rather surprising. In the long haul the left will win, believe it or not. But not in the way in which, perhaps, we anticipate the outcome.

The parallel I now evoke is that of Rome—and that culture because it is the one most accessible to me. Rome’s “world wars” were a combination of the Punic Wars (Rome v. Carthage, Hannibal and Elephants, etc., 264-146 BC, in three separate waves) and the concurrent Macedonian Wars (the conquest of Greece, in four separate conflicts, 215-148 BC). In the wake of these vast and draining conflicts, Roman was left in sole possession of the world—at least as things then looked from Roma. But thanks to the enormous wealth that then began to flow from the possessions that Rome acquired, the same process of social division that I detect taking place here (under the slogans of Freedom, Markets, and Capitalism) began in Rome. The process featured a very powerful and wealthy ruling class and a population of ordinary people increasingly impoverished. Impoverished how? Imported slave labor displaced the ordinary farmer and craftsman. Within fifty-five years of the final defeat of Carthage began what is known as the Social War. The actual disturbances lasted only briefly (91-88 BC), but the processes that then began continued to be violent and eventually led to the fall of the republic. We would today label the two sides Right and Left: the propertied ownership class and the ordinary plebs. The leadership of both came from the aristocracy. Eventually the left, in the figure of Julius Caesar, won the field. Caesar? A lefty? Absolutely. We think of him as an emperor, but he came from a so-so neighborhood in Rome. You know. Small shops, modest houses, a brothel here and there. He was of noble background, poor, but he had lots of talent. And he was on the side of the people against the Establishment. Enantiodromia is one of my favorite Greek words: it means a process that transforms something into its very opposite. The Roman Empire was a left-wing enterprise that never again, after Augustus took power, let the wealthy oligarchs even touch, never mind hold, the reins of power.

1 comment:

  1. Nice.
    I'll had over to LaMarotte to see more on this topic!