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Griftopia and complicity

A guest post at Yves's place on Taibi's Griftopia, and other recent books on financialization and its discontents:

“Griftopia” begins with the story of the rise of the Republican Tea Party movement. Mr. Taibbi sees the rise as a diversionary tactic, focusing the attention of the populace away from the real issues – the grifters, bankers and people that the author dislikes – towards tangential issues – immigration, foreigners and the role of government. But the book itself is diversionary. In resorting to crude “blaming” and “flaming” even the correct targets without a thorough and accurate understanding of the true issues, “Griftopia” cheapens its case and ultimately allows the hated “system” to continue unhindered.

“Griftopia” may fall into its own trap. Its rage and blame perpetuates a lack of understanding of the real causes of the problem. The Roman Caesars understood that the crowd needed bread and games. They also knew that when things went wrong, an occasional sacrifice and crucifixion was the key to maintaining power. The clever vampire squid may have suborned Mr. Taibbi into its service. ....

“Griftopia” and “All the Devils Are Here” do not acknowledge the complicity of everyone in the body politic in the essential financialisation of modern life and the reliance on economic growth. They do not acknowledge the fact that while the grift worked and everyone got richer, everyone remained sanguine about the “system”. No one cared as long as his or her stock portfolios and houses rose in value. No one cared as his or her living standards improved or there was the possibility of improvement

I guess I have problems with "everyone is complicit" as an analytical tool, because it puts kings and lords on the same plane as peasants and artisans. "If only the peasants would die for the cause, kings would be more just." Well, who says? And is tu quoque truly fallacious when a claim of complicity is an implicit demand for action? Then again, perhaps it's not the peasants, or not only the peasants, who need to be willing to die to make the king more just, but the barons and their retainers, as in the Magna Carta or, for that matter, the American Revolution. I don't know.

Anyhow, if complicity is getting to you, you can always practice slow politics by withdrawing from the system of rents; and in New York, you might consider joining the Empty Plates demonstration this afternoon.

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Submitted by jawbone on

ANY idea of what the game was and that there even was a game? And among those two groups, how many understood or wanted to understand?

People were told for decades that taxes were the problem from the Repubs and then, by the Dems, that if they played by the rules they would be OK.

And the underlying game? The general public had no idea about the rules of that game. For most of us it began to hit only in the last decade or so. Enron was an eye opener, but that was explained as an aberration. The lifetyles of the rich and infamous uninhibited CEO's using their corporations as cash machines made some of wonder about how they could possibly get away with things like that. Were there no corporate boards to watch these things?

But the real exposure for the general public came with the the collapse of The Big Shit Pile, the unrestrained use of public monies to prop up banksters, and the following econmic collapse. And even now, it would be difficult for anyone getting news from the MCMers* to understand what is actually causing these problems.

And Obama ain't gonna tell them (us).

Taibbi may not have it down perfectly, but he at least reaches people who don't get into econ news very much.

*MCMers -- Members of the Mainstream Corporate Media

Submitted by Hugh on

I left a long comment at Yves' place, which I will reproduce here:

I figure Taibbi can defend himself if he wants to. What I find fascinating is what Das' critique of Taibbi says about Das. I don't remember him ever exposing so much of his own thinking, or its limitations.

I agree with the comments beginning with attempter's. Das begins by serving up the false dichotomy between the bailouts and doing nothing. That has been debunked here many, many times. I would agree too that not being trained in classical economics is a plus, given the horrendously bad record of modern economics and the complicity of its practitioners in establishing the intellectual and political rationales for the looting we have seen. There is a reason that Das seems far more comfortable discussing Adam Smith than Matt Taibbi. Smith presents a rational, nuanced system that coheres and in which Das believes or would like to believe. Taibbi's whole approach trashes this concept.

This brings me around to a point that I have tried to make in the past. Griftopia is a wordplay on utopia, or rather dystopia, but it is really just a synonym for kleptocracy. This is my primary criticism of virtually all current economists. None of them write on, or try to construct an economic theory for, kleptocracy either because they are still in denial or because the sheer notion undercuts almost everything they believe and were taught. In any case, they continue to act as if we have a well performing system that is currently experiencing some problems, that is it is not currently well performing. This is really where the fault line is. To use a medical analogy, the difference is whether the patient has pneumonia or an aggressive poorly differentiated stage four carcinoma. As DeepSouth notes, if you see it as the first, then you think the system is reformable. If you think it is the second, then you start talking about vampire squids.

I have also said that the three keys to understanding our current situation are kleptocracy, class warfare, and wealth inequality. We have already seen how Das dances around the first of these. As for the second, the primary weapon in class warfare is diversion. In class warfare as practised by the rich, it is all about setting one group in society against another. If you are non-union, then hate those unions, even if they raised the baseline for pay and benefits for everyone. If you are private sector, then hate those public employees who get paid more (even if they don't). It is all about turning natural allies into unnatural enemies. It is about convincing you that your best course of action is work against your own best interests. Thus we get Das writing

"But American ideological reluctance to raise taxes to finance essential public services and assets forced governments to resort to these forms of financing.[privatization]"

This is where all 3 elements come together. Note how 30 years of no growth in wages, the resultant massive transfers upward in wealth, leaving most Americans cash strapped and in debt gets generalized into the "America ideological reluctance to raise taxes." The rich have taken so much wealth from the rest of us that they now turn around and sell the line that raising taxes would be too much for us. Diversion. What they are really talking about is raising taxes on them. They also preach to us how austerity is necessary, we must live within our means, but when they preach austerity to us, it never means austerity for them. When they want to spend money on bailouts, wars, and tax cuts for themselves, the money is always there. Because it would get in the way of his argument, Das just ignores that "government" is seldom responsive to voters but nearly always is to the wealthy who buy the politicians and use the levers, laws, and rules of government to make themselves far wealthier, at our expense.

Three years into our serial economic crises, I am tired of the excuses and rationales. Das may take Taibbi's rigor and style to task, but Taibbi is on the right side of that fault line. Das is not. There is often a period of flux in great historical events where people of good faith can hold opposing views. But for us that period has come and gone. Das cannot espouse the views he does without making himself complicit in, and part and parcel of, the kleptocratic structures they represent. He can't stand above, apart, or outside of them. What he has shown us of his own positions shows us that he has not.

Submitted by lambert on

I keep wanting to make a joke on "Das Kapital" but it's late....

Submitted by jawbone on

I justl checked it out (heard it pronounced differently by an English guest on a talk show today) --

Kudos is singular, but those creative English speakers are coming up with a singular, kudo. More about its etymology at the link.

vastydeep's picture
Submitted by vastydeep on

Terrific writing. Das also screws up in his understanding of "gonzo journalism." Taibbi interviews Tea Partiers at close range, but he himself is NEVER part of the story. If Taibbi uses expletives, it's because the subject matter is expletive.

I know this is just "piling on" to an already dreadful review by Das, but then "things can always get worse."

Again, terrific takedown by Lambert.