31 July, 2009 — Joe Bageant
A short history of why we eat oil, can’t smoke pot, and why assault weapons are so expensive in our hour of need
(With running commentary by THE SCREAMING MAN)
Well, for starters, the above title is a damned lie, since this little screed is not a history. It’s just rumination on the tilting point at which Americans started the slide into the deepest sort of cultivated consumer consciousness — which is to say our corporate managed engorgement and swinedom at the service of the rich.
Very rich families and corporatists, to whom, as in earlier articles, we shall refer to as ‘the bastards,’ have always been with us. Even Tom Jefferson thought periodic revolution against wealth and authority was desirable to keep these bastards in check. Which implies that he figured they would inevitably get us by the throat down on the floor from time to time.
But the bastards scared the hell out of later presidents too. Abe Lincoln feared the large corporations born of business profiteering during the U.S. Civil War — the military industrial complex of the day — easily constituted the greatest threat to the American republic. Being president and all, he couldn’t call them what they were, and settled for the term ‘money power,’ and predicted that, ‘money power will … work upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.’
And as everyone knows, Dwight Eisenhower famously feared the same military-industrial complex was busy taking over the nation. What we never hear about though, is that Eisenhower’s definition of the complex included among the bastards, not only the military defense industry corporations, but also right alongside them the news media and the university and private research establishments.
If nothing else can be said for the bastards, we must admit they do plan far ahead, (or seemed to anyway, before the latest meltdown) even if only to screw us blind, which is usually the case. Since the early robber baron era of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, just after the turn of the century, the bastards understood that the key to national domination was oil — creating an economic culture based on petroleum — and planned toward that end. Big corps such as E.I. DuPont had invested heavily in the oil industry since the turn of the century, and especially since the 1930s creating synthetic materials such as plastics, in which the public was decidedly uninterested in buying. Then World War II came along, creating big demand for synthetics such as nylon for parachutes, tires, tents, ropes. DuPont and similar bastards had drawn a royal flush.
SCREAMING MAN HERE!: RIGHT! IT’S THE ONLY SURE RACKET. ASK ICE MAN CHENEY. YOU MAKE STUFF, SELL IT TO THE PENTAGON MOB AND RAM THE PRICE CLEAR UP THEIR ASSES. THEN THEY BLOW THE STUFF UP, INCENERATE IT, AND COME BACK FOR MORE AT DOUBLE THE PRICE BECAUSE NOW THERE’S A SHORTAGE! FOR A FAST DEPENDABLE BUCK, YOU CAN’T BEAT INDUSTRIAL SCALE WARFARE WITH A GODDAMNED STICK!
Unfortunately all good things end, no matter how bloody profitable. But those super-expanded wartime corporations that had cranked out planes and tanks were not going to downsize just because we had run out of Dresdens to bomb. They intended to remain dominant and even expand. With the war drawing to a close, and with fewer burning jeep tires on the battlefields and fewer parachutes left dangling in the trees of Belgium, American citizens were going to have to eat the slack. The bastards would have to stuff’em fuller than a Christmas goose; make them eat petroleum based synthetics, if it came down to that. Which it eventually did of course, in the form of petrochemical agriculture, food dyes, etc.
SCREAMING MAN: YOU GOTTA A FUCKING PROBLEM WITH NUMBER TWO RED DYE OR SOMETHING, ASSHOLE? DON’T BULLSHIT THESE PEOPLE, YOU FLAMING OLD FRAUD! I’VE SEEN YOU EAT A WHOLE BOX OF PINK HO-HOS BEHIND A BOTTLE OF JAY DEE AND SOME COLUMBIAN BUD! AM I GONNA HAVE TO TAKE MY NEEDLE NOSED PLIERS TO YOUR LYING ASS?
Plastics, heralded as durable and everlasting (and today lamented for the same reason) eventually gobbled up nearly every other material market, in the from of jewelry, dashboards, dishes, clothing, napkin rings, perfume bottles, knickknacks, flooring and carpeting, resin building materials, vinyl raincoats and boots, molded furniture, radio sets … America was remade in the image of open chain hydrocarbons. That nine tenths of what was produced and marketed was unnecessary, and downright shitty did not go unnoticed by the American public, which had been deeply distrustful of plastics and synthetics from the time they were first ballyhooed at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. People were just not buying the sales job. But the combination of wartime shortage frustrations and massive industrial public relations delivered the one-two punch, and the consumer knuckled under. Or perhaps they were just worn down by industry PR, which enlisted the help of trusted figures such as Frank Capra and Walt Disney, among others, along with in-school industry propaganda for the next generation: ‘Our story of the miracle of plastics starts with an oil well in a faraway place by the Persian Gulf … ‘
AND IT GODDAMNED WELL IS GONNA END THERE TOO! IN ABOUT 15 MINUTES, IF IT HASN’T ALREADY! DOES ANYBODY REALIZE THE NUMBER OF SARAH PALIN BLOW-UP DOLLS SHIPPED TO THE TROOPS IN IRAQ? IF THAT’S THE KIND OF ARMY WE’RE SENDING TO KILL OFF THE PALM VERMIN, THEN WE’RE GONERS ALREADY!
As I was saying, the bastards not only created an economy by and for themselves, based on the black sticky stuff, they also built a civilization. From the tallest building right down to the petrochemical soaked dirt in which the food supply is grown, and all along the chain through processing and plastic packaging and distribution, The black stuff was cheap and it was plentiful, so long as the bastards were willing to buy off the top dog sheiks like ibn Saud, who would in turn keep the dusky peasantry in line through good old perennials such as beheadings and public stonings.
SCREAMING MAN MISSES THOSE POST 9/11 BEHEADING VIDEOS, DON’T YOU? IT WAS SO EASY TO TELL WHO AMERICA’S ENEMIES WERE THEN. BUT AT LEAST WE’VE STILL GOT BEN BERNANKE AND BILL GATES.
During the 1940s AND ’50S while ibn Saud was fathering some 60 children by 22 wives in Arabia and dishing out corporeal punishment to the far flung wretches of his kingdom, here at home the corporations were doing their own hit jobs on the this nation’s peasantry — the farmers. Petroleum based synthetics, with legislative help, wiped out one quarter of the domestic cotton market in the first few years following the war, along with flax for linen, and hemp fiber, replacing them with ugly but profitable synthetic nylon and polymer textiles. Not to mention replacement of literally hundreds of farm produced natural organic materials for medicines, cosmetics, milk by products such as casein for glues and paints, with synthetic petro-based commodities, all of which were mercilessly hammered into the populace as ‘miracles of modern science.’
Kings may croak, but cash lives forever
The fact that the bastards were corporate entities made them more powerful than any robber baron’s best wet dream, because their power and reach extended beyond human mortality. Deathless corporations and trusts replaced the mortal thieves such as Rockefeller and Morgan; and despite the advent of income taxes, capital continued to aggregate in the bastards’ coffers, particularly financial bastards, at what was seen then as an unimaginable scale. ‘Money for nothin’ and chicks for free …’
Powered entirely by balance sheets, and existing for the sole le purpose of wealth accumulation, parting with any assets was antithetical to their very purpose. Not to mention the logic of the wealth based stockholders. The majority of assets were held by elite, whose main accomplishment was then and still is coming from families that commandeered some substantial portion of the public medium of exchange in order to derive more wealth.
WHOA THERE FATSO! WHOSE FAMILY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT HERE? PARIS HILTON’S? OR MAYBE ALICE WALTON’S? PARIS HILTON HAS EARNED EVERY JEWEL ENCRUSTED THONG IN HER CLOSET! FROM TUSH TO TITTIES, WE’VE SEEN EVERYTHING PARIS HILTON HAS TO OFFER. AND IT’S WORTH A FEW BILLION TO KEEP HER IN CIRCULATION. GIVES THE MEN OF THIS MISERABLE WORKHOUSE NATION SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN. SOMETHING TANGIBLE. SOMETHING THEY CAN ACTUALLY SEE AND WHACK OFF TO. HER DIRTY FLICK, ‘1 NIGHT IN PARIS’ WAS A GIFT TO ALL MANKIND. LET THE LESBIANS FIND THEIR OWN PARIS HILTON … BUT ALICE WALTON? SCREAMING MAN WOULDN’T FUCK HER WITH YOUR WHANG, BUSTER! THAT MISERABLE DRUNKEN BITCH RAN DOWN AND KILLED A FIFTY YEAR OLD WOMAN IN TEXAS. WHAT’D SHE GET? A $925 FINE! SHE HAS 20 BILLION DOLLARS AND GETS OFF FOR LESS THAN A THOU. AND WHAT DOES ALICE GIVE US? CHINK MADE FLIPFLOPS AND GODDAMNED PLASTIC PATIO CHAIRS THAT BUCKLE LIKE OBAMA AT A BAILOUT PARTY! GIVE THE SCREAMING MAN PARIS HILTON ANY DAY. NOW, FATSO … YOU WERE SAYING?
Hell, I can’t remember. Oh yes, the bastards. Once you are born into the Royal Court of the Kingdom of Bastardy and are issued your caviar spoon, no further effort is required to amass capital. You simply keep on withholding capital from those who had create it — the working masses — keep captive the economic lifeblood upon which all others depend. Observe, for instance, the banking industry’s present refusal to unass any money for credit, despite the hundreds of billions handed to them as a taxpayers’ gift, a bailout AFTER they’d ripped off their shareholders and customers, and looted their own institutions from the inside.
UPSET ARE YOU, FATSO? LET THE SCREAMER TELL YOU HOW IT REALLY IS. IT WAS ALL AN ACT. THE FED WAS JUST PRINTING AND HANDING OUT WORTHLESS WALLPAPER — WHICH THE BANKING BASTARDS, WITH ALL DUE APLOMB, WILL PAY BACK IN KIND. THEN THE BASTARDS WILL BE DECLARED SOLVENT, FAT AND HEALTHY AS A BUNCH OF PARK BEARS. MEANWHILE, YOU GODDAMNED PEASANTS WILL CONTINUE TO ANGUISH OVER THE BAILOUTS LONG AFTER THE REAL RIP-OFF IS IN. THE ONE YOU NEVER SAW AND CAN’T EVEN WRAP YOUR SORRY POINTED FUCKING HEADS AROUND. THE REAL DOUGH IS SPREAD ACROSS DUBAI, MONACO, LONDON, AND FOR SAFETY’S SAKE, BEIJING. WHILE YOU ANGUISH, PATE OF UNBORN VEAL CALF IS BEING SERVED TO THE REAL BASTARDS UP ON THE 50th FLOOR. THEY POUR ANOTHER GLASS OF 1999 PERRIER-JOUET, AND CHORTLE AT THE DISMEMBERMENT OF A NO-TALENT HACK LIKE BERNIE MADOFF. THAT HAPLESS SMALLTIME JEW GREASEBALL WHO CAME INTO THE GAME WITH $5,000 IN PENNY STOCKS THAT HE BOUGHT WITH MONEY HE MADE INSTALLING SPRINKLERS. NEVER A REAL PLAYER LIKE US, EVEN WITH HIS BULLSHIT WALL STREET TITLES. JUST A DUMB FUCK FROM QUEENS WHO DIDN’T KNOW WHEN TO QUIT A SCAM. LET THE SERFS GNAW AT HIM. KEEPS ‘EM BUSY AND OUT OF OUR HAIR. LOOK, THEY’VE PULLED ONE OF HIS ARMS OUT OF ITS SOCKET. CHRIST, NOW THEY’VE RUINED LUNCH.’
THAT’S WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON, FATSO.
The bastards. Why have they lasted this long? Purely on their own merits, most American corporations probably would not have survived the 1930s. By then our wildly fluctuating economy was already demonstrating the folly of overly concentrated capital and power. What was needed, said the big players who’d wrecked the economy with their uncontrolled speculation and greed, was, lo and beshit, a controlled economy! One even more controlled by corporations. Problem was, the only entity capable of such control was the government. And unfortunately, the Constitution of the United States was founded on a separation of business and state to the same degree as that of church and state.
If the bastards were to run the economy, if Americans were going to be pistol whipped down the road to ‘prosperity through unprecedented consumption,’ then government authority by Constitutional law would be necessary. As a 1937 shareholder’s report of the E.I. DuPont Company ‘the revenue-raising power of government [taxation] must be converted into ‘an instrument for forcing acceptance of sudden new ideas’ and a ‘social reorganization.’ Uh oh! Just whose sudden new ideas? And what kind of social reorganization?
The report stated bluntly that to realize further extensive profit from its wartime investments, the U.S. government ‘must be the primary tool.’ While their plans to use the government were put into the shareholder’s report, they were never publicly discussed.
FDR saves the bastards’ bacon
The chance to pull it off came ironically or maybe not so ironically, with Roosevelt’s New Deal. FDR was, contrary to the subsequent hagiography that has grown up around his grave, was first and foremost a capitalist and was determined to save capitalism. Given his affluent background and times, he, like everyone else, could not imagine anything but capitalism as the nation’s economic system. Yet nowhere in the Constitution is capitalism specified as America’s preferred economic system. His lifelong circle of friends and associates consisted entirely of the elites of family and corporate wealth, which meant that it also included some of his enemies. But together they created a host of ’emergency legislation,’ in much the same fashion as 911 let George W. Bush get away with so much under the excuse of a national threat. Even allowing for the resistance of some wealthy elites, FDR favored the bastards’ plans toward a thoroughly corporatized national economy.
The Supreme Court, however, a stickler for details such as the U.S. Constitution, did not see things Roosy’s way. It would take a rewriting of the U.S. Constitution for the government to crawl into bed with the corporations. So every piece of legislation FDR and his cohorts created got snagged in Supreme Court and just kept piling up.
The key for FDR and the Princes of Bastardy turned out to be taxation. To control society means to control individual behavior. The Constitution prohibits that, except for those few powers granted in the Constitution, such as the coinage of money or declaring war. Throughout the 1930s the public watched FDR and the corporatists duke it out with the Supreme Court. While the public was engaged in the debate over FDR’s threatened stacking of the court, FDR and the bastards managed to accomplish their agenda in controlling opposing social behavior — taxing it to death. The government is granted the power to tax by god! And the Roosevelt era saw the art of behavior modification through taxation perfected.
Now in changing American social behavior through taxation there are two rules. The first tax must be a very logical one. And the second must be one created of whole cloth, a manufactured one to counter a manufactured threat. So after the Supreme Court knuckled under to FDR’s threat to divide up the judicial limelight by appointing more justices, a more compliant court happily passed a $200 tax on machine guns — the equivalent of $3,000 today — the same tax, incidentally, that allowed the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms division) and the FBI to invade the Branch Davidians at Waco. It was unconstitutional as hell. But the court understood public relations. What kind of deranged fucker needed a machine gun anyway? Well, there was There was John Dillinger (whose penis was 14 inches long, according to folk legend of the day, which was either threatening, or vastly intriguing, depending upon one’s sex or moral perspective on life). There was Seymour ‘Blue Jaws’ Magoon, Bonnie and Clyde, Pittsburg Phil, Baby Face Nelson, Al Capone, Bummy Davis. And if there was any further doubt, there was also the fact that the members of Murder Incorporated were Jewish, Italian or Irish. Ah ha! More proof to the then-majority Anglo Americans of naked immigrant depravity. So two hundred bucks per tommy gun it would be under the 1937 Machine Gun Tax Act.
The second tax the court upheld was the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. Most Americans had never heard the word marijuana. The tax act had adopted a little known Mexican street term as a name in order to demonize it, and differentiate it from the thousands of acres of government hemp being grown for naval ropes, etc. Never mind that in the entire previous year only a couple of pounds of the stuff were seized by border police. A $200 an ounce tax had worked on machine guns, so a $200 tax per ounce was placed on hemp cultivation without permit, and no permits were issued. And so as an added bonus — or maybe intentionally — the synthetic fiber industry and the plastics industry saw its most threatening long term competitor, hemp, eliminated.
And for the first time in the history of the United States the bastards could use the government to tell farmers what seeds they could put into the earth. In short order by way of the New Deal, through various agricultural acts, corporatists, through government policy, had control over the land even though they did not own it. The chief competitors to industrial food giants and synthetics industry, the small farmer producers of thousands of natural goods and raw materials, were eventually taxed or regulated out of existence. At the same time, subsidies for big-time agri-biz producers started snowballing. A nation of consumers of synthetics was cultivated in the next generation. The result we see around us, obese Americans willingly wearing the bastards’ brands on acrylic clothing … and guzzling synthetic soft drinks, Americans who’ve never once considered that the pizza crusts they gnaw at start out with a grain crop called wheat.
Ten thousand years of agriculture was synthesized into money. The soil-to-city chain of small farms, villages, and towns to the great city markets was destroyed. Those ever more profitable compressed gobs of humanity in the cities and suburbs could be cultivated for maximum productivity and profit as the bastards increased their domination of the needs hierarchy. If you made a movie of this, swapping out the humans for some sort of large intelligent rodent or insect, and left everything else as it really is in American life, people would call it chilling science fiction.
Long story short: The bastards won.
This distillation of how they won, this little piece of feral scholarship, is sure to be disputed by hairsplitting pinheads in political science and history departments. The ‘Oh but …’ crowd. Which is OK with me. Everybody needs a job, I suppose. But that’s the view from here in the cheap seats among the non-players, the fuckees in the great fuck-the-proles game of bastard politics and ever bigger money. Call this a pulp comic summary of post war history. It’s not a very damned funny history. Maybe that’s why we choose not to remember it. Here in the United States of Amnesia. We cannot retain what happened last week, much less history. But I’m trying here folks. I really am.
SCREAMING MAN: BULLSHIT FOLKS! DON’T BELIEVE A WORD FROM THIS GODDAMNED BEER SOAKED, REDNECK WHO CAN’T SPELL AND THINKS HE’S A GENIUS BECAUSE HE KNOWS HOW TO BRING UP WIKIPEDIA ON HIS BROWSER. IF AND WHEN HE’S SOBER ENOUGH. THE SCREAMING MAN HAS BEEN TRAPPED INSIDE BAGEANT’S BLOATED, DISEASED CARCASS FOR SIXTY TWO YEARS, AND THE SCREAMER CAN TELL YA THIS: IF BRAINS WERE DYNAMITE BAGEANT WOULDN’T HAVE ENOUGH POWER TO BLOW OFF A GOOD FART. YOU’VE JUST WASTED TWENTY FUCKING MINUTES OF COMPANY TIME. NOW GO TAKE UP SOMETHING USEFUL, LIKE NARCOTICS. FOR CHRISSAKE GET A LIFE!