Vicarious Cannibals

Funny how that sentence can have two opposite meanings. Anyway, Mike Lofgren, writing in The American Conservative, charges the rich with revolting and seceding from the nation state. While many of his observations are on point, I’d argue that he’s got the causality backwards. The rich are always the same, disconnected from the societies in which they exist, because they share a common quirk of personality.

They’re not disconnected because they’re rich; they get rich because they are disconnected. They get what we call rich, because their only talent lies in the accumulation of stuff. Money makes the accumulation so much easier, because it takes up little room.

Scrat with his precious nut from the movie “Ice Age”

Self-centered human accumulators aren’t really much different from squirrels, as far as this habitual, characteristic behavior is concerned. The real difference would seems to lie in the fact that squirrels don’t remember where they hid their stash of nuts. But that doesn’t matter because when all the hungry squirrels start searching in the detritus, the nuts get found regardless of who put them where. On the other hand, when Willard hides his stash in the Caymans, it’s not available for the rest of us to use. Accumulation is useful, but only if what’s accumulated is spent. Otherwise, it goes to waste.

If the suggestion that accumulative humans suffer from certain cognitive deficits, akin to the squirrel, offends, it’s likely because it suggests society has been negligent in letting incompetents disrupt the whole world’s economy, when we could just make them turn over their stash. Moreover, if accumulation is the main objective, removing the stash will just enable the money obsessed to accumulate more. That would explain why a 91% tax rate spurred, rather than dampened, trade and exchange.

Lofgren includes a number of provocative sentences in his screed. One paragraph, in particular, resonates with my version of the secular prayer: “In the name of the nation and of the dollar and of the rule of law shall your sons and daughters be sacrificed.”

If a morally acceptable American conservatism is ever to extricate itself from a pseudo-scientific inverted Marxist economic theory, it must grasp that order, tradition, and stability are not coterminous with an uncritical worship of the Almighty Dollar, nor with obeisance to the demands of the wealthy. Conservatives need to think about the world they want: do they really desire a social Darwinist dystopia?

Blaming Darwin hardly seems fair. Darwin cataloged species (also a form of accumulation) and the predatory behavior of animals was impossible to miss. However, humans targeting their own kind as prey, whether directly or as a variant of animal husbandry, which exploits first and consumes later, is not an evolutionary step. Other species “eat themselves out of house and home,” but none consume their own. Of course, for people hung up on being exceptional, cannibalism (real or vicarious) could be pointed to as evidence of their special status.

And, again, while I appreciate the language Lofgren uses to raise the alarm, I think he’s got the sequence wrong.

The objective of the predatory super-rich and their political handmaidens is to discredit and destroy the traditional nation state and auction its resources to themselves. Those super-rich, in turn, aim to create a “tollbooth” economy, whereby more and more of our highways, bridges, libraries, parks, and beaches are possessed by private oligarchs who will extract a toll from the rest of us. Was this the vision of the Founders? Was this why they believed governments were instituted among men—that the very sinews of the state should be possessed by the wealthy in the same manner that kingdoms of the Old World were the personal property of the monarch?

Our vicarious cannibals (vicarious because the tools they use, money and the law, render the whole process symbolic) don’t give a fig for anything or anyone else. They are self-centered, in the extreme, and indeed, like a spinning top, perceive the world as turning around them, even as they have no sense of themselves. It seems contradictory — to be self-centered and clueless. But then, Socrates must have had reason to advise “know thyself” and several centuries later, the Nazarene was reported to have counseled that they should be forgiven “for they know not what they do.” Which suggests the clueless have always been among us and their thoughtless, habitual behaviors have always been annoying. So, we should forgive, but that doesn’t mean we should do nothing to counter their effect.

Lofgren’s reference to Lasch is also well-taken:

Lasch held that the elites—by which he meant not just the super-wealthy but also their managerial coat holders and professional apologists—were undermining the country’s promise as a constitutional republic with their prehensile greed, their asocial cultural values, and their absence of civic responsibility.

I particularly like “prehensile greed,” which suggests that instinctive behavior, rather than thinking or cognition, is to blame. But, the dire consequences he fears aren’t remotely likely, unless we become similarly inattentive. Americans, in particular, are keeping millions of pets, so there’s no reason we can’t accommodate a million or so non-productive humans. Yes, they self-segregate and remain isolates, but escape is not in the cards.

stdas0417.jpg

The truth is that accumulators, whether they realize it or not, depend on what others produce. And, again, whether they realize it or not, accumulation is useful in itself, as long as it doesn’t go too far. We can insure that it doesn’t. We can even accommodate vicarious cannibalism, as long as we don’t let it spill over into real-life effects — e.g. depriving people of medical care so they’ll die quickly and in the prime of life, when they still have assets that can be divided up.

One is reminded of the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ clothes.

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Image credit: Promotional image of Scrat from the movie "Ice Age" via their wiki. Bible illustration in public domain.

Monica Smith

Monica Smith writes Hannah's Blog. Born in Germany, she came to the United States as a child, living first in California, then after an interval in Chile, in New York. Married to a retired professor at the University of Florida, where she lived for 17 years, she moved to St. Simons Island, Georgia, in 1993 and now divides her time between Georgia and New Hampshire. (New Hampshire, she says, is always interesting during a presidential election.) She and her husband have three children and five grandchildren. Ms. Smith says she "learned long ago that I am not a good team player when I got hired at the Library of Congress, fresh out of college with a degree in political science and proficiency in four foreign languages, to 'edit' library cards and informed my supervisor that if she was going to insist I punch the clock exactly on time, my productivity was going to fall from being the highest to being the same as everyone else's. The supervisor opted to assign me to another building where there was no time-clock. After I had the first of our three children, I decided a paycheck wasn't worth the hassle."