Never in recent history since pre-World War II British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain have our ‘leaders’ been so out of step with the general populace. Or for that matter, with the tide of history—not for nothing has the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement dubbed its participants ‘the 99 percent.’ (Aside from the fact that it represents the split between the wealthiest and the rest of us.) The protests have moved to something like 123 cities now, with hundreds of thousands of people finally fed up with the legalized robbery of the financial sector and the obscene, record-setting corporate welfare of the bailouts.
And no wonder—as individuals at the rallies told their stories, the common refrain was one of persistent joblessness, soaring student loans, and mortgage foreclosures, effectively putting more and more people on the street. One young woman had been out of work for 15 months, had a student loan of $20,000 to pay, and could only get part-time work at minimum wage. And what is the financial sector’s response to this escalating tide of public misery? JP Morgan Chase in June this year gave an unprecedented donation of $4.6 million to the New York City police department. Well at least now we all know who the police really work for.
The image of financiers sipping champagne while protestors occupied the square below is an eerie echo of Marie Antoinette’s infamous quip while Parisians rioted for food: “Let them eat cake.” Now, granted, as Wikipedia points out (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Let_them_eat_cake), it’s not clear that Marie Antoinette actually said this. But as with many misattributed quotes, the words often stick because they resonate perfectly with the times. In this case, it was a metaphor adopted by the collective consciousness that illustrated how utterly out of touch with peoples’ lives the aristocracy were—then, as today. The only difference is that today’s ‘aristocracy’ is to be found in the steel and glass towers of financial districts around the globe.
It stymies the imagination to comprehend how anyone could be either so oblivious or so callous as to sit back on gold-brocade chairs and watch while other human beings lose everything. Since it’s obviously not a case of ignorance—the super-rich have as much access to information as the rest of us, if not more—then the only explanation left is sheer venality. But that still leaves us groping: why do people become so hard-hearted?
At the risk of oversimplifying, my answer to that is what I call the Sociopath Gene. Anyone who has seen the documentary The Corporation will recall that by the psychological profession’s standard of diagnosing mental illness, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), corporations match the checklist of the psychopath point for point. That is, they have little or no connection with the community, no capacity for remorse, are utterly self-absorbed, and are prepared to commit violence to serve their own ends. A sociopath typically carries all the same symptoms except for the violent tendency. Still, what’s the difference between committing violence with a gun to someone’s head or committing violence with the stroke of a pen? Naturally the Sociopath Gene is hardly a scientific concept (yet?) but as a metaphor it works. How else to describe people who seem capable of despoiling the entire planet simply so they can cruise the Riviera on their yacht in the morning and dine in a five-star Paris hotel that evening?
Multi-billionaire Warren Buffet has said that it’s nothing less than a class war, “and my class is winning.” I wrote something similar in the poem Waiting for Armageddon: “Welcome to Armageddon the Sequel, / the final war of the rich on the poor.” (Star Seeds, New Orphic Publishers, 2009) Well, let’s just say the verdict is still out, judging by the rising tide of discontent. The French aristocracy probably thought the same thing before Madame Guillotine’s terrifying reign followed in the wake of the French Revolution. The thing about arrogance is that—like out-of-control greed—it eventually leads to blindness and even outright stupidity. Seeing that they get away with rigging the game in their favour each step of the way so far, plutocrats always take just that One Step Too Far. That snapping sound you hear is the patience of the general public finally giving way—we’re a forgiving lot on the whole, but not infinitely.
Which leads me to another point. Here in British Columbia we have our own sociopathic plutocrats, eager to plunder the public wealth for the benefit of themselves and their buddies. The billion-dollar ‘smart’ meter fiasco is a case in point. To date, 20 municipalities have called for a moratorium on the program, until it can be properly vetted by the B.C. Utilities Commission. A similar motion was recently passed by the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM). Yet Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources Rich Coleman (hmmm, rich indeed?) was blunt in his refusal to heed the rising tide: British Columbians are getting ‘smart’ meters whether they want them or not, whether they’re safe or not, whether they’re good for your health or not. Because let’s face it, Coleman has a whole lot of Liberal insiders in the B.C. Hydro hierarchy who have been promised entry into the Billionaire’s Club, and they’ll be mighty pissed if anything gets in their way.
Even the Vancouver Sun, that West Coast bastion of the self-proclaimed ‘elite,’ has published an op-ed piece by Stephen Hume critical of the ‘smart’ meter program. Hume calls the Liberal government’s resistance to public pressure its Waterloo, referring of course to the battle that finally brought Napoleon down. “You’d think the Liberals would have learned something on their stumbling retreat from the Moscow of the Harmonized Sales Tax,” writes Hume, “what with Bill Vander Zalm’s and Chris Delaney’s take-no-prisoners referendum and recall campaigns so fresh in their memories. It seems not.” Stop Smart Meters BC has filed for an initiative petition to force a referendum on the matter, just as former Premier Vander Zalm did with the GST. Hume, discussing the many misdeeds of disgraced Premier Campbell, explains the principle I referred to earlier: that arrogance tends to lead to greater and greater outrages until it finally leads to the One Step Too Far. As he explains, from concerns spanning privacy of data, to mushrooming hydro bills, to health issues, the public is uniting under a broad front on this one. And politicians who can’t see that can expect only one outcome at the next election: “If the premier and her party remain determined to march to Waterloo armed with smart meters, you can bet that it won’t be a ‘near run thing;’ it will be an utter rout.”
Naturally the B.C. Liberals are politically savvy enough to know that the electorate’s collective memory tends to be short. So in the next 16 months to a Provincial election, let’s remind ourselves every day of their arrogance. Let’s remind them—and the one percent who want it all—what can befall those who find themselves on the Wrong Side of History.