In These We Trust?
Is it a coincidence that so many of capitalism’s Great Men – its leaders and captains of industry – are so utterly unworthy as human beings?
By all accounts, including his own, Bill Clinton is a mendacious, sleazy rogue, whom you would trust to look after your shares but not your younger sister. Clinton’s own analysis of his condition, after taking priestly counsel, is that he’s a sinner. His process of repentance has involved dropping bombs on Iraq, for which he has been praised as a defender of global peace, and parading around America exhibiting his ubiquitous smirk. It is the insolent smirk reminiscent of a southern Baptist choirboy caught nicking the church collection whose only resource of defence, after months of righteously denying the charge, is to bite his lip and utter hoarsely “I was looking after it for Gaad”.
Christopher Hitchens, who has watched the US President perform his political vaudeville routine for years, wonders aloud whether the White House is occupied by a psychopath; apparently, a group of leading US psychiatrists met to consider the President’s condition and a majority arrived at this diagnosis. (London Evening Standard, 6 January). He is certainly a persistent liar whose personal affairs smack less of the liberated Sixties than of the latter days of the Roman Empire. And yet he is the twice-elected leader of the most powerful nation-state within global capitalism. It is perhaps fitting that a sterile, degenerate, obsolete social system, incapable of providing material comfort or security for the majority of the population, is presided over by a character who would not be appointed by anyone responsible to run a youth club or a school for girls.
Crowd of scoundrels
Is it a coincidence that so many of capitalism’s Great Men—its leaders and captains of industry—are so utterly unworthy as human beings? In Britain we have witnessed the fall of Cabinet Ministers who, until their moments of disgrace, were depicted as the embodiments of political virtue. Mandelson, who was Batman to Blair’s Robin, was caught borrowing money to fund his domestic mansion from a tax-evading millionaire whose business dealings Mandelson’s own government department were supposed to be investigating. Robin Cook’s ex-wife has described the Foreign Secretary as an adulterous drunk. Meanwhile, the European Parliament (in a bid to remind us of its existence in time for the June elections) has been feeling the collar of numerous cheats, frauds and criminals within the European Commission. The Commission’s defenders have responded with the defence that, as a percentage of the EU budget, there is no more corruption there than in the governments of the fifteen member states. Oh, that’s alright then.
It is surely unsurprising that capitalism’s leaders should be such a disreputable crowd of scoundrels. After all, they are elected to run a system which thrives by robbing workers of the fruits of their labour and pursues competition by ruthless dishonesty, culminating in wars in which men, women and children are indiscriminately slaughtered upon the altar of profit. The system requires a certain brand of callousness at its nerve centre. To be elected, leaders need to tell complete lies with a straight face. Either that, or they must be dopes (Reagan) or masters of self-deception (Clinton). Running capitalism is not a career for an undamaged human being.
But let’s not deceive ourselves. Even if capitalism was run by saints—and, according to New Labour, they don’t come much more angelic than St Tony—it would not take long for the system to wipe away their virtuous intentions. The simple reason for this is that politicians do not manage capitalism but it manages them. Although they pose as leaders (and may sometimes imagine that they are actually in charge) their job is to justify before the public the results of the economic anarchy over which they have very little control. So, Blair might be committed morally to helping the poor and being kind to little children, but when the Treasury officials call for a callous attack on the benefits of single mothers and the disabled he does so with large doses of pious excuses; when the Pentagon ordered him to send British troops as bag-carriers in the Iraqi bombing Mr Nice suddenly became a cheerleader for a gang of contemptible thugs.
Capitalist politics, having run out of reform policies to waste its time upon, has now become largely a contest for popularity between various moral postures. In the USA the only mitigating factor on Clinton’s side is the repulsive Christian dogmatism of his Republican prosecutors, whose complacent individualism and ethical authoritarianism has turned parts of their country into a cultural Bedlam inhabited by a hard minority of True Believers, others without any hope at all and a significant minority who will believe anything. And in Britain the best strategy for Blair in the midst of government disarray is to let Michael Howard appear on the TV saying how disgusted the Tories are by government corruption. The battle for power under capitalism is largely a matter of electing (to use Bob Hope’s phrase about the 1988 presidential contest) the evil of two lessers.
One of the saddest things about leaders is not how they behave but how their followers are forced to behave. The political follower is a miserable, pathetic specimen. These are people—usually with no material stake in their leader’s success—who will go the ends of the earth to defend the Great One’s reputation. In America one has witnessed Democrat-supporting feminists who have had to appear on TV defending Clinton’s sleazy relations with his young intern and arguing that women like Paula Jones, an employee who was sexually molested by the President, are unreliable witnesses. Just like the deluded leftists of the 1930s who were forced by their own blind loyalty to justify every brutal crime of “Comrade Stalin”, so one has New Labour supporters today who will nod approvingly at Blair’s new-Tory policies when they would have been marching in the streets had the Tories introduced them. (Would the National Union of Students have adopted such a belly-up approach to tuition fees if the Education Secretary had not been David Blunkett?) Capitalism’s leaders disgrace themselves—and, as that’s what they’re paid to do, why should we throw our hands up in horror? But the way they diminish and degrade their supporters is truly loathsome.
So, Clinton falls on his knees before the American people and, smirk intact, asks Gaad and the gullible to forgive him. The gullible have shown themselves to be a majority in the (non-) opinion polls and Gaad has not responded—unless Hurricane Mitch can be regarded as a provisional comment from the all-loving deity.
There will come a day—unless our leaders blow us up before it comes—when people will look at film footage of Clinton and laugh at the comedy of our times. They will wonder how so many people were taken in by such a terribly bad act. They will wait for the hollow statements, the rehearsed gestures and the sterile clichés to be trotted out and they will mimic them in the way that a certain generation learned to copy catchphrases from Monty Python sketches. They will have no leaders and will look upon their ancestors who followed as poor, deluded creatures who were insufficiently educated to tell these con-men where to get off. How soon that day comes depends quite simply on how soon we develop sufficient consciousness and organisation to tell the leaders to get lost (as they invariably do anyway) and to replace the Rule of Leaders with a Society of Equals.