The Virtues of Public Anger, and Need for More

by Chris Sturr | March 22, 2009


Great piece by Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com; hat-tip to Ben C. Ben wrote me: “This article is pretty damn good. I predict that your proposed new title for D&S, ‘Jump You Fuckers,’ will be conventional wisdom by Sept/Oct.”

The virtues of public anger and the need for more

Glenn Greenwald | Salon | Saturday March 21, 2009 09:08 EDT

With lightning speed and lockstep unanimity, opinion-making elites jointly embraced and are now delivering the same message about the public rage triggered this week by the AIG bonus scandal:   This scandal is insignificant.  It’s just a distraction.  And, most important of all, public anger is unhelpful and must be contained or, failing that, ignored.

This anti-anger consensus among our political elites is exactly wrong.  The public rage we’re finally seeing is long, long overdue, and appears to be the only force with both the ability and will to impose meaningful checks on continued kleptocratic pillaging and deep-seated corruption in virtually every branch of our establishment institutions.  The worst possible thing that could happen now is for this collective rage to subside and for the public to return to its long-standing state of blissful ignorance over what the establishment is actually doing.

It makes perfect sense that those who are satisfied with the prevailing order — because it rewards them in numerous ways — are desperate to pacify public fury.  Thus we find unanimous decrees that public calm (i.e., quiet) be restored.  It’s a universal dynamic that elites want to keep the masses in a state of silent, disengaged submission, all the better if the masses stay convinced that the elites have their best interests at heart and their welfare is therefore advanced by allowing elites — the Experts — to work in peace on our pressing problems, undisrupted and “undistracted” by the need to placate primitive public sentiments.

While that framework is arguably reasonable where the establishment class is competent, honest, and restrained, what we have had — and have — is exactly the opposite:  a political class and financial elite that is rotted to the core and running amok.  We’ve had far too little public rage given the magnitude of this rot, not an excess of rage.  What has been missing more than anything else is this:  fear on the part of the political and financial class of the public which they have been systematically defrauding and destroying.

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These endless lectures from sober, rational pundits about the relative quantitative insignificance of the AIG bonuses are condescending straw men.  Nobody thinks that $165 million in bonuses for the people who destroyed AIG is what has caused the financial crisis.  Nobody thinks that recouping those bonuses or having prevented them in the first place would solve or even mitigate systemic collapse.  The amounts are miniscule in the context of the broader economic issues.  Everyone is aware of that; nobody needs to have that pointed out.  As Armando astutely observed, the attempt now to dismiss the anger over the AIG bonuses as the by-product of simple-minded ignorance and/or ideological rigidity (class warfare!  crass populism!) is quite similar to how anti-war arguments were stigmatized before the attack on Iraq :   ignore the screeching pacifists and let the sober Experts make the decisions, for they know best.

The AIG scandal is significant and has resonated so powerfully because it is a microscope that enables the public to see what and who has wreaked the destruction that threatens their security and future and, most important of all, to realize that these practices haven’t ended and the perpetrators haven’t been punished.  The opposite is true:  those who caused the crisis continue to exert control over what happens and continue to have huge amounts of public money transferred in order to enrich them.

Eliot Spitzer is absolutely right that, even at AIG, there are far larger scandals than the bonuses, such as the undiscounted compensation of AIG’s counter-parties such as Goldman Sachs (and just by the way:  it is indescribably symbolic that Spitzer has been punished and disgraced for his acts of consensual adult sex while the targets of his prescient Wall St. investigations, who basically destroyed the world economy, remain protected and empowered). But the bonus scandal is illustrative of why the crisis happened, who caused it to happen, and the ongoing political dominance of the perpetrators.  It is, as Robert Reich put it, “a nightmarish metaphor for the Obama Administration’s problems administering the bailout of Wall Street.”

The financial crisis has merely unmasked the corruption and rot in our establishment institutions that are staggering in magnitude and reach.  Just as the Iraq War was not the by-product of wrongdoing by a few stray bad political and media actors but instead was reflective of our broken institutions generally, the financial crisis is a fundamental indictment on the way the country functions and of its ruling class.  What would be unhealthy is if there weren’t substantial amounts of public rage in the face of these revelations. 

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