Economic Cannibals and Political Masters

I just re-read George Fitzhugh’s 1857 classic Cannibals All! or, Slaves Without Masters. It’s inspired me to make a few comments about our country’s present political and economic dialogue. I am particularly animated by recent statements made by multimillionaire (billionaire?) Silicon Valley tycoon Tom Perkins.

Don’t worry, I will explain below how these two historically disparate things are connected but, first, let’s recap the whole brouhaha over Tom Perkins’s letter to the editor regarding a potential Nazi-like persecution of rich people by political progressives. We will also dig a little into his follow-up opinion about voting–probably uttered in jest.

In the letter he sent to The Wall Street Journal Perkins suggested that if the Progressives in this country had their way the 1% would be arrested and sent to concentration camps! They would have their property ransacked and seized! Progressives might even kill the 1% while burning down their homes and businesses!

Wait! Perkins does not actually say that Progressives will turn into brown-shirted thugs bent on violence and rapine. Instead, he said something about Danielle Steele being called a “snob” and a local protest against Google buses that take employees to work from the bedroom communities surrounding San Francisco. Apparently, people who work at Google can’t afford the real estate near the corporate headquarters, and this is not sitting well with the bedroom communities that are experiencing rent inflation because of the influx of Google employees.

Did Perkins actually know what Kristallnacht was when he wrote that letter? Clearly not. He apologized a few days later, presumably after someone gave him the short version on Nazi history.

More recently Perkins was castigated by the “liberal mainstream media” because he suggested that the rich deserve to have more votes simply because they pay more taxes. Of course, when he said that Mr. Perkins smiled and leaned forward saying “There!” This flourish of manner would indicate that even as he said it Perkins did not mean to be taken seriously, at least not on the idea that a million dollars in taxes should get you a million votes. That, by the way, is how they do it when you own stock in a company. Shares equal votes in the utopian world of pure capitalism!

Now, let’s assume for a moment that Tom Perkins, in both of these instances, was just playing a political bomb-thrower. That does not mean we should dismiss these outbursts as the grumblings of some eccentric billionaire (multimillionaire?). They are more than that. These outbursts represent a particular worldview, a worldview that would be very dangerous for the modern world were it to take hold. The reason this worldview is dangerous is because it does not view disfranchisement in a modern and open representative government as a fundamental injustice, even though our “founding fathers” supposedly thought it unjust–at least for white men with property.

This is a view we must combat with all our moral and intellectual will, even when it means our interests are not fully realized at the ballot box. Any of us could fall into the trap of thinking that “some people” just don’t deserve to have a say in how this country is run, how we all live, or how we will deal with the rest of the world. How long would it take, though, from the moment we decided some people don’t deserve to vote to conclude that maybe these same people don’t deserve to be free, or even live?

Tom Perkins’s view hearkens back to a time when people thought that some were meant to rule while others were meant to be ruled. The only difference between those who believe that now and those who believed it five centuries ago is that divine right has been replaced by the invisible hand of the market.

Tom Perkins and his ilk believe that because they have climbed to the top of the money heap this gives them the right to tell everyone else what to do, especially when it comes to the economy. They are rankled that democratic institutions stand in the way of their ascent to power through money alone. They despise the fact that true power lies not in the acquisition of capital but in the acquisition of the reigns of government. So, like the barons of old they seek a government by the rich, for the rich. They see any attempt to reign in their economic power as a Nazi-like plan to deprive them of life and property, even if the Progressive agenda means only a ten percent increase in the top tax rate or raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Now, George Fitzhugh was a southern slaveholder opposed to what we today would call the liberal capitalist system. Fitzhugh was more sympathetic to the thinking of Karl Marx than he was to the ideas of Adam Smith, but he shared with Perkins two things: he shared with Perkins the ability to throw political bombs into a room, and he was convinced that nature had given him the right to rule over all he surveyed. (Fitzhugh died penniless and homeless after the Civil War.)

Perkins’s ideas can be traced back to Fitzhugh, and Fitzhugh’s ideas can be traced back to the pre-Whig nobility of England. Perkins’s ideas about society, economics, and politics are completely divorced from the idea of a thriving middle and working class–or a properly functioning democratic society. Fitzhugh equally disparaged such things.

Perkins’s believes that if everyone would just follow our new, self-appointed economic overlords that we would all reach an idyllic land where venture capitalists and technocrats dictate how we all live. Perkins believes that no one who has not achieved his kind of economic success can ever be a legitimate contributor to political life.

Like Fitzhugh, Perkins ultimately believes that the great mass of society can never be happy without a master. He couldn’t be more wrong!


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