Before the advent of a world economic system in the last few centuries, agriculture-based civilizations like the Greek, Roman or Chinese empires often faced attacks from confederations of warrior tribes, like the Mongols, the Huns, Vikings etc. These “barbarians,” who turned from hunter-gatherer or herder ways of life to plundering each other or neighboring agrarian societies, sometimes were integrated into existing agrarian empires or alternatively broke up or destroyed larger civilizations via successive attacks over periods of decades or centuries. The award-winning 1990 book and subsequent movie “Barbarians at the Gate” re-popularized the term, in this case as a description for ruthless, ego-driven corporate take-over specialists in the 1980’s.
While there are still plenty of figurative “barbarians” on Wall Street, barbarian also applies as term to the behavior and goals of the current Republican leadership in Congress and in allied “Tea Party” organizations. The Republicans have laid siege to government over the last 30 years, developing a culture of “barbarian” disregard for the usefulness of government. Republicans have created a culture in which plundering government for their own sakes and that of their patrons is “OK”, “natural” and normal-seeming. They have shown little regard for the activities that maintain the wealth of a society as a whole, including paying taxes to pay for public amenities that benefit the entire society. While some Republicans are rude in their behavior as one would expect of the barbarians of ancient history, not many act in an overtly loutish manner; there is a shrewd strategic element to the chaos that these political barbarians have been creating which should not be underestimated.
President Obama has through the first two years of his Presidency appeared as though he doesn’t realize that he is dealing with people who are operating by a different set of rules, who represent interests that have ruthless disregard for others. He has acted as though he is not even in a fight with them, that their cooperation is assumed. Meanwhile his opponents have treated him both openly and also covertly as an enemy to be defeated. This has given them an advantage because almost all means of combat are open to them, while he has restricted himself and thereby the leadership of the Democratic Party, to the politest and even quite deferential approaches to them. In terms of game theory, he has shown them that he will never “defect”, while they can choose to cooperate or defect as they would like. The Republicans’ approach has increased their power rather than diminished it. He has conceded the high ground to people who, in terms of governing our current society, have little sense for how not to “grind the face of the poor into the dust” and dismember valuable social institutions for the gain of a few economic warlords.
Today, it has been uncovered that right-wing Christian fundamentalist “therapist” Marcus Bachmann, the husband of Republican Presidential candidate, Michele Bachmann, has called gay people “barbarians” that need to be educated and “cured” of their gay impulses. While I find this use of the term laughable and inaccurate, I believe my use of the term here actually explains something about our political system and how people think about economic and political spoils. While I am aware of and am comfortable with its pejorative connotations in my application of the word, I cannot control its misapplication by others.
The Modern Romance of the Barbarian/Outsider-Warrior
Starting the 1980’s, there developed in America and elsewhere a cultural romance of the barbarian or nomadic warrior way of life, which was an evolution of the lone gunfighter myth with slightly different cultural and political dynamics. Most famous of course, is the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, Conan the Barbarian, based on the Marvel comic of the same name. The growing popularity of outlaw warriors may have emerged from a number of cultural strands of that time, including damage to America’s self-image and military pride by the Vietnam experience, disenchantment or boredom with modern bureaucratic society in general, as well as the search for more “natural” ways of being. The emergence of barbarians and other tribal warriors in the movies, was a continuation of the pre-existing romance of the outsider, (i.e. “Rebel Without a Cause”), as well as of the lone gunslinger (many Clint Eastwood roles of the 1960’s and 70’s), which had grown up in post-War America as the alternative to what was seen by authors and other artists as an overly conformist society.
The barbarian romance militarized the outsider, usually with ancient or more primitive arms arrayed against a much larger force thereby justifying their use of force in the minds of the viewer/reader; in versions of the romance, the “evil empire” is challenged by a rag-tag bunch of freedom fighters. While set in the future, the Star Wars movies could be seen as a version of the barbarian invasion idea but with nomadic warriors portrayed as almost all “good” and suitable for viewing by children. In some sense being a barbarian or outsider frees one of having to do bureaucratic things like collect taxes and pay government contractors, while enabling one to do more cinematic activities like have sword fights and brood. The mythical barbarian is either free to use violence whenever it “feels right” or according to some code that bypasses legal institutions, which is a continuation of a long tradition in America of glorifying the individualized use of force, supposedly for good.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 became one political opportunity to realize the new barbarian romance. The Soviet Union’s efforts to hold onto their sphere of influence/empire enabled some Americans to shed post-Vietnam feelings of inadequacy and to un-do the sense of being a failed and un-loved empire. In an inversion of the usual business of American Empire, support for freedom fighter was taken out of myth and put into reality via military support for Afghan tribalists and eventually Islamicist radicals. As is now obvious, military support for these new tribal fighters has boomeranged back against the United States via the rise of Al Qaeda and other Islamicist extremists who developed their own romance of unfettered violence against settled nations.
The role of denial and other repressive defense mechanisms cannot be underestimated in fueling the interest in nomadic warriors and depoliticized guerillas in the cultural realm. America was the dominant and sometimes oppressive military power in the world and had been defeated decisively inVietnam. The anti-imperialist sentiment of the day was directed against the US. The barbarian romance in its various versions (outer space, magical realms, and ancient history) provided a means to avoid dealing with the real political challenges facing the US; one could instead pretend to be the guerilla. This led people to avoid thinking about the reality that Americans were often called upon to fight or fund anti-guerilla or interventionist military adventures.
Parts of the New Right capitalized on this sense of an uninhibited warrior or barbarian “self” unchained from the strictures of the social consensus of the 1970’s that tended towards liberalism and guilt for past or current aggression. Ronald Reagan tapped into the older, more politically acceptable cowboy narrative to claim a myth-swaddled outsider status for himself. However, a new class of activist financiers and business leaders also started to claim publicly or in boardrooms identification with warriors and raiders to capitalize on the weaknesses of others, be they competitors or their employees, to enrich themselves and the people they represented.
While historical “barbarians” tribes started out usually as hunter-gatherers or herding peoples, the turn towards the barbarian lifestyle meant a reliance on raiding as at least an avocation if not a full-time job. A barbarian, therefore, as part of a predatory group of people, is looking for pre-existing wealth to plunder, opportunistically, without the need to pay or work to construct that wealth. Barbarians then undermine or are a parasite upon the work of others and do not see the need to reckon with the costs of producing wealth. Barbarians are the ultimate consumers who take by the use of force, or in the case of the modern barbarian, manipulation, what they desire or think they desire. Anthropologists classify this type of exchange as one extreme of “negative reciprocity“, meaning that one side or both sides try to take as much as possible from other without regard for any shared sense of fair exchange.
While this sounds like modern sociopathy, the difference is that, as with many warrior and warring peoples, the targets for raids are “other” peoples outside the raider’s ethnic group. As with modern crime families, those inside the family are supposed to be treated with respect while those outside are seen as targets for the family “business”. It is no accident the organized crime family saga has over the last few decades become one of the leitmotifs of modern cinema and television. Watching stylized representations of people stealing things, being loyal or disloyal to a tribe, and kill each other is generally less “boring” to the overstimulated media-saturated mind, than watching representations of people cooperating with each other, building and growing things. Some claim that real sociopathic individuals perhaps gravitate towards these groups and situations more than the average person.
In current supply-side/neo-liberal/neo-classical economic orthodoxy, while it doesn’t justify criminality, there is little that counsels against heedless consumption and promiscuous “use” of business partners. The praise of markets and market mechanisms, encourages consumers, buyers and sellers to have little regard for long term consequences or impacts, focusing instead solely on quantity and price of goods. Furthermore there is no hard and fast distinction in conventional economic theory between a “real economy” and trade of financial instruments and gambling on asset prices; one can be substituted for the other in the current theoretical framework.
Opportunities for even more open anti-social behavior within the law were offered by the development of complex, and increasingly deregulated financial markets in the 1980’s, also celebrated by academic and political proponents of marketization. Here, rationalizations could be found for promiscuous and opportunistic behavior by investors and by financial middlemen all looking out for easy money. The focus on the buying and selling of corporations themselves as mere chits on the stock market, also has encouraged an opportunistic short term approach that has had profound effects on how American businesses invest and conduct their everyday operations. Few attempt to invest for the long term and public goods themselves are overlooked, dismissed, or looted by private financial interests. It is no accident that the current “masters of the universe” in the US economy are now a group, parts of which have variously described themselves as “raiders”, “vultures” or other predatory or parasitic beings, encouraged by an economic structures tolerant of massive negative reciprocity in the form of financial fraud and looting of public assets.
The Republican party economic orthodoxy can now be well-characterized as an endorsement of and enabling factor in the growth of barbarian economics. The Republican campaign against taxes and tax increases appeals to the “barbarian” prejudice that public goods are there simply to be looted or run down without regard for their upkeep or future viability. The emergence of a class of super-rich financial tycoons who do not manage or produce goods of any enduring value but instead trade paper assets finds a comfortable home in the Republican Party; they feel that predation is their job, for which they are extremely well compensated. Despite the damage inflicted by Republican ideas and policies, many Americans, under the spell of the barbarian romance, identify with the notion that our public goods exist in time, magically or providentially, to be used up in the moment without regard to its origin or source.
Surprisingly, the painful aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 has presented the new class of “uber-barbarians” in finance with an occasion for increased power and even greater opportunities to pillage the public coffers and existing private wealth. At first, governments around the world bailed out many troubled financial institutions asking little in return, reconstituting the financial “playground” within which our barbarians have operated. Then in early 2009, springing out of the existing anti-government, anti-Keynesian trend in academic economics, a new political and economic discourse of fiscal austerity or deficit hawkery turned against efforts to help ordinary people via social welfare payments in what was appearing to be a second Great Depression. Deficit hysteria has led to austerity measures and as well as efforts to sell off or privatize various public assets and services, leading to a new opportunity to loot public assets. Cutting social services also creates new opportunities for mostly inferior private market social services.
In the deficit hawk turn of the last two years, we have the expression of a truly dastardly strategy of greed, moral cowardice, and destruction that goes beyond typical barbarian avarice and recklessness. Here after enjoying the largesse and help of government, a form of corporate and financier socialism, these wealthy individuals and their Republican representatives blame others for the costs of their bailouts, corporate welfare, and wars, demanding cuts in social spending that are almost sure to damage the overall economy, as the UK is now experiencing. Under the veil of claims of fiscal virtue and concern about future generations, the deficit hawks call for those with less to be punished for the transgressions of the deficit hawks, the wealthiest and the most well-connected!
President Obama Steps Into the Trap
President Obama had in early 2009 an opportunity to start restructuring the US financial system that had run amok and to place the economy on a sounder footing but chose instead to impose few conditions upon the financial institutions the federal government rescued. He made speeches that suggested that he in part bought into the self-image of financiers that they would once again manage and regulate themselves with no debt write-downs for homeowners. He never fully embodied the role of a leader who would do whatever it took to help the needy and the struggling economy, subscribing to the Washington insider and Wall Street consensus that this recession would be like other US recessions of the post-War era. The idea that the internal momentum of the private sector would rescue the economy as a whole predominated in his thinking, ignoring the warnings of many economists that this recession was different.
As the “Oh my God, the sky is falling” moments of 2008 subsided, Obama started also to parrot and/or represent the rising deficit hawk chorus that demanded cuts in social spending to reduce deficits. His Republican opponents, sensing an epochal opportunity to shift the blame for the crisis from private actors to public debt and spending as well as undo the New Deal and the Great Society social programs, yelled in unison about deficits and spending on deficit. A new populist-seeming Tea Party was inspired by a Wall Street journalist and funded by right-wing billionaires joined into the anti-debt chorus. Obama did not have the intellectual grounding in or perhaps internal moral support for Keynesian economic views which would have allowed him to resist these calls.
Obama appointed a bi-partisan deficit commission that was heavily influenced by anti-Keynesian thinking on its Democratic and also Republican sides. The highest economic virtue, against the recommendations of actual economic analyses of the current period, was proclaimed to be reducing spending and “tightening one’s belt”. Obama and many Democrats following his example trapped themselves into agreeing that cutting spending immediately was key to economic recovery even as almost every credible account of the economic collapse showed that it had nothing to do with public spending or public debt levels. While mounting public debt would eventually play a negative role in the economy after it had recovered, in the current situation after the financial crash, public spending was the only lifeline of an economy dead in the water with insufficient aggregate demand and heavily indebted households.
Allowing the Citadel of the People and of the Economy to be Overrun
As a nominally “liberal” President from a party that is supposed to represent the common man and woman, President Obama’s endorsement of these ideas has had a unique and powerful role in political discourse. For the Republican barbarians, Obama’s adoption of these ideas is the equivalent of a Trojan Horse, where the commander of a citadel accepts a gift from the besieging army which contains the means by which the citadel will be overrun. Government would not only foot the bill for the bailout of the financial firms but would also by its own actions assume moral responsibility for the financial crash 2 years before. In addition, a regime of reduced taxes would continue for the wealthy continuing on the pointless Bush tax cuts which helped stimulate further financial barbarian excesses. Thus the leader of the supposed “Left” has pushed what has been called the Overton Window, the window of accepted political discourse, over to the Right away from the only realistic instruments that have a chance of improving the economy in our current economic mess.
In addition, Obama has proved to be more generally an indifferent fighter in the face of stiff opposition and has had a propensity to offer concessions and to ennoble his opposition. These attitudes have functioned as unexpected gifts to the Republican barbarians who are all too happy to take everything that is given them and concede nothing in return. With President Obama’s implicit endorsement of their respectability, they could continue on pillaging government and planning the demise of Obama’s Presidency. Obama has shown no deep understanding of the ruthlessness of his opposition and the stakes involved in, what to him, seemed like an abstract political game, which he could finesse.
While it is unclear how sympathetic he is to the plight of working people, President Obama clearly cares a lot about his own re-election, yet he has stepped into a trap which makes his re-election less likely. He has focused on appearing “not progressive” and “not-Keynesian” and in so doing has created a situation where his economic policy is easily attacked from either Left or Right. Admittedly, he stepped into the most challenging environment for a US President since the 1930’s and, perhaps unsurprisingly, his personal inclinations have been tested. He has the hardest job in the world and it is showing.
Kicking Out the Barbarians
President Obama’s help to the barbarians, both those in Congress and on Wall Street, is primarily political. Because of the morally reprehensible and economically damaging real behavior and pronouncements of many of the Republican barbarians they have enormous political vulnerabilities. The Republican leadership hides behind a tissue of lies that could easily be torn away by simply pointing out very obvious hypocrisies and inconsistencies in their story. Republicans are trying to maintain a system of looting the public purse for the wealthy while depriving the most vulnerable of help at a time when this is exactly the wrong thing to do for the welfare of the real, productive economy. The economy needs customers and right now, government is in the unique position to deliver customers.
President Obama has seemed to be inordinately sensitive to and accommodating of the Republicans’ inconsistencies and complaints when they are exposed to the light of the truth. He is clearly afraid of losing financial “barbarian” funding for his re-election campaign and the Republicans note this.
The easiest route towards progress and in keeping with the rhetoric of his campaign, would be if Obama started to fight more vigorously against the Republican trap that he has walked into. He will perhaps have to answer questions about his inconsistency after agreeing to budget cuts and seeming to accommodate Republican demands. However, it will be far better for him politically, if he starts to align himself with the interests of the majority of his potential constituency rather than the elite and misguided few who are operating with a faulty model of how the economy works.
Alternatively, popular movements against budget cuts will continue to grow and Obama, Democrats and Republicans will have to respond to popular anger at having to bear the brunt of the recession. This pressure will, we hope push government towards more equitable and economically effective solutions.
In the end, our society requires leaders that know how to lead and develop our civilization, not those who prioritize “barbarian” interests in the “quick score” and short-sighted greed. In this critical period, economically and in terms of the energy challenge facing us, leaders will need to represent the general interest of Americans and humanity. A combination of the ability to decipher and expose barbarian political tactics while representing a sound economics for the benefit of all is of necessity a prerequisite for success in this difficult period. I am hoping that President Obama will develop these skills and orientation in the months to come but pressure from the American people is an absolute necessity if he is to be shown the way.