The Most Dangerous Game

Allow me to get first response stuff out of the way. The dangerous game we know we are all in --- every expanding returns on investments for a few and continuously maximizing profits to active shareholders and traders while the planet Earth fares ill and its populations fall back into a medieval peasantry, if they are not already mired in hunger and disease and illiteracy – is not the most dangerous game. That comes after we’ve played this preliminary dangerous game long enough.

Let’s begin with the prelim game:

Who stands to gain if the U.S. defaults on its debt obligations? We hear many questions, such as what effect would a default have on Wall Street, Main Street and the Washington Beltway, but this question is seldom if ever posed. Perhaps this is so because it emerges from a deep, dark cynicism, or, perhaps because it emerges from recent history and that history has not been pursued to indictment levels.

Jesse Eisenger and Jake Bernstein, writing in ProPublica, reported how a Chicago hedge fund named Magnetar made a vast fortune by betting against the market. It repackaged risky financial securities — collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs.—packed them full of even more risky stuff and then bet against these paying off by picking up insurance – credit default swaps – that would pay off upon failure. Note that failure was what they wanted; there was more money to be made if the securities failed than if they were paid off . Everyone involved in this game, namely bankers, made huge bonuses on this “planned failure” enterprise.  

 In February 2010, Stephen Foley reported in the online The Independent the following regarding Goldman-Sachs’ role in Greece’s economic woes:

The euro membership rules place strict caps on the size of government deficits relative to a national economy, but Goldman Sachs and other banks helped Greece raise cash earlier in the decade in ways that did not appear in the official statistics. With the current recession causing even official budget deficits to balloon all across the continent, fears of further hidden liabilities have been contributing to the crisis of confidence in Greek debt and pulling down the value of the euro.

This is indeed a dangerous game to be playing with national governments, the economic and, thus, political order of a society, and the well-being of citizens. In an age in which the “public good” and the “common wealth” are much disparaged, assaulted and neglected, our Millennial financial chicanery clearly points to our new dedication to the “public bad,” to the “wealth of a few.” It seems as if the word “public” has itself become bad and that we must now all reconcile ourselves to the ruthlessness and untrustworthiness of our “market players,” our financial advisors and gurus, our entrepreneurial CEO’s. The cleverness, slyness and quickness of the hedge fund manager, our new knight in armor, a black knight indeed, are the virtues we admire. He, however, meets the mood of a country whose citizens, divided on all levels, have replaced trust with suspicion, compassion with fear, hope with impatience, and understanding with blind rage and prejudice.  

At the bottom of all this degradation, this retrogression from civilized attitudes and human goals, lies the greed and material self-interest that an economic system, which has no goal but profit to shareholders and no faith except in the “efficiency of markets,” in the Invisible Hand of the market, offers to us. And we have accepted greedily and blindly, repressing a way of life in the U.S. that did not make the goals of capitalism the exclusive goals of a democracy or its citizens.  

I do not know how the Michael Burrys and the John Paulsons will profit from a U.S. default on its debt; I don’t know if Goldman-Sachs and other banking/investment houses have maneuvered profit from such default, but it is axiomatic for “players” to seek profit exclusively in any situation. It’s a dangerous game our capitalism is playing but it is one that has gone on without dire consequences to the players or the game. This may be so because we have indeed become part of the abyss we have looked into for so long. We do not know how to admire anything but the obscene financial successes of the shrewd financial wizards among us. We want to be them, even as the New York Times reports that in four years the wealth of Hispanics has gone down 66%, Asians 54%, African Americans 53% and Whites 16%.   

As disastrous and incendiary as these figures are, we will respond as always: good fortune is on the horizon if we pursue self-interest with greater passion, nurture our own acquisitiveness a bit more, and do what the successful do: put out of sight all the soft soap that Liberals peddle, all the excuses and petitions of the Losers, all the appeals made on behalf of those who don’t know how to look out for Number One.  
Ideologies held as unimpeachable Truths in the minds of dedicated followers ravaged the 20th century and while we may think that the current debt ceiling battle is an ideological battle, it is a battle in which the Invisible Hand of global techno-capitalism rules. There is no complex ideology behind the Conservative servitude to the plutocracy American democracy has become. And the socialist rooted ideology that created the prosperity of the middle class and the mobility of the working class has for a long time not been visible in a Liberal/Progressive agenda to extend “individual free choice,” an agenda that suits capitalism nicely but mostly distracts us from obliterating our economic divide, our wealth divide. Our politics dances to the tune of our Wild West brand of capitalism.  

At the very bottom of the Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik’s madness that directed him to write a 1550 page manifesto that displays the hold extreme Right-wing nationalist and anti-Islamic views have on him, that led him to massacre 76 people, mostly children, is a total collapse of any bonds with his fellow human beings, of any love for them that would encourage a trust in them, of any hope for them. He explains his actions as a kind of “creative destruction.” Ideology did not create that monster. What created that monster is in the air we now breathe globally. It is not any ideology that has swept the globe but a Millennial brand of rapacious capitalism that divides rich from poor, neighbor from neighbor, human from fellow human. Breivik is a product of what is in fact the most dangerous game we are in.

And that game is this: when you live in a society in which no one trusts anyone, in which no one cares about anyone beyond “networking” for a purpose, when compassion is dead, when self-interest has created a blind selfishness that like a plant rooted in too small a pot feeds upon itself and withers, when obliviousness replaces neighborliness, when suspicion and fear create the local “community,” when everyone has a gun at hand for protection against a neighbor with a gun in his hand –  a dangerous game has indeed begun.  

      The darkness that the U.S.’s deep dedication to “More” at the expense of everything cannot produce the sort of revolt of the masses that Marxists long predicted or those that have occurred most recently in the Arab Spring Revolutions. We are not now shaped to correct and re-balance a neoliberalism that benefits only the few. The interminable debate going on now over the raising of the debt limit makes it clear that even the smallest efforts to protect a middle class well-being and a working class hope of economic mobility cannot find traction. They cannot find traction with the Many who stand to gain if these protections and entitlements are maintained, who stand to gain if some erosion of the wealth gap occurs when the wealthy are taxed at historically effective progressive levels.  

Rather than comprehend which side they should be on, the Many have done much to create the present difficulties in the U.S. by electing in 2010 eighty-seven “Tea Party” disciples whose only claim to be in political office is their self-proclaimed ignorance of politics, their hostility to it and their faith that they could dismantle Obama, the Democrats and the Federal government. At a time when the need is for negotiations, compromise and productive interrelationship, these legislators stand their ground like Old Testament prophets, filled with a righteousness that welcomes no infringements, brooks no compromise.   

It is not clear who will take the most heat if some compromise is not reached; the situation is already beyond the “clean getaway” stage. The U.S.’s credit rating will be downgraded and the interest on new loans will rise. When the Many face reduced Medicare services and reduced Social Security and an even more unreachable Medicaid, anger may be evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans but “Big Government” will surely pay the price in the 2012 elections. Political candidates who promise they know nothing about government but promise only to destroy it and leave governance to Facebook circles will once again be popular.

All this needs to be said because the most dangerous game being played is not one in which the diminished and assaulted Middle Class and the drowning Working Class will reach some Noam Chomsky or Richard Wolff level of critique, will start to read Political Affairs, or even start to read Paul Krugman or truthout, and rise up, form real grassroots populist organizations, save what’s left of the New Deal and go on to re-balance the lopsidedness created by “classical economics,” put an end to the “shock doctrine” so brilliantly described by Naomi  Wolfe, indict the perpetrators of the 2008 crisis, re-establish an effective progressive income tax, re-attach Liberalism with its socialist roots, wrest control of society from the plutocrats – and much more.  

The mass psyche of the U.S. is too deeply a product of a self-interested materialism to launch that Utopian rising up of the Oppressed against Wealth and Privilege in the name of social justice, economic equity and humanity itself. It isn’t shaped to make a critique of what’s going on now. And that’s what’s needed.

The most dangerous game, then is not a possible revolt of the masses; that’s not even a game board Google can tell us how to set up. No, I’m afraid that we will fall more deeply into a perilous zone where community dies, suspicion and fear reign, violence replaces understanding, cold competitiveness dwarfs our hearts, and a true Dark Ages emerges. The wealthy will not be able to private jet over this or fashion gated communities that can abolish fear. But like feudal lords, they will abide but not without fear and the pain that a fearful uncertainty brings. The lordly Few will no longer be in a position to ask the Many to endure pain while they only legislate it into being; everyone will feel it. The most dangerous game begins when we retrogress to primeval levels of human caring and concern, of loving that cannot go beyond ourselves, of a “friending” that fails to go beyond its Facebook boundaries. We trust no one and no one trusts us. And we pretend something different, until a Breivik appears and we see what utter darkness our “privatized” caring can bring into being.

The most dangerous game begins when trust in each other dies. It is the lack of that trust that impedes any hope of political resolution now on any issues. Tony Judt (Ill Fares the Land, 2010), in his last days, foresaw the darkness of a world without trust:

Clearly we cannot do without trust. If we truly did not trust one another, we would not pay taxes for our mutual support. Nor would we venture very far outdoors for fear of violence or chicanery at the hands of our untrustworthy fellow citizens. Moreover, trust is no abstract virtue. One of the reasons that capitalism today is under siege from so many critics, by no means all of them on the Left, is that markets and free competition also require trust and cooperation. If we cannot trust brokers to behave honestly, or mortgage brokers to tell the truth about their loans, or public regulators to blow the whistle on dishonest traders, then capitalism itself will grind to a halt.

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