Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ralph Nader is Wrong: The Super-Rich Can’t Save Us

By Ben Schreiner

At the outset, let me just state that I have long admired Ralph Nader.  And to this day I remain proud that I voted for Nader in the 2008 presidential election.  But with this having been said, Nader couldn’t be more wrong in his latest pontification for progressive change put forth in his “practical utopia,” “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” 

Nader begins his 2009 novel with Warren Buffet, the billionaire investment mogul, watching news coverage of Hurricane Katrina on television.  The sight of a full-fledged societal breakdown compels Buffet to act out of a sense of patriotic shame.  He quickly assembles a caravan of aid and personally drives down to Louisiana.  Upon receiving the assistance and condolences of Buffet, a destitute Louisianan woman proclaims, “Only the super-rich can save us.”  The woman’s statement serves as an epiphany for Buffet, who begins strategizing on how to actually save the country. 

Buffet soon convenes a secret meeting in Maui with 16 other super-rich and “progressively” minded individuals (the first indication that this is indeed fiction) to plot the salvation of the country.  This group of super-rich—deemed the Meliorists—includes the likes of Bill Cosby, Ross Perot, George Soros, Ted Turner, Yoko Ono, along with some lesser-known figures as well.  Serving as the group’s leader, Buffet induces each Meliorist to contribute a portion of their vast reserves of wealth toward combating the corroding influence of uninhibited corporate money and power in American politics. 

With a shared vision and strategic framework agreed upon, each Meliorist covertly sets in motion their various country-saving projects.  This includes the forming of a People’s Chamber of Commerce and Clean Elections Party, the unionization of Wal-Mart, the public satirizing of corporate personhood, and more.

What follows is a fairly entertaining read, culminating in the obligatory confrontation between the forces of good and evil.  Nader is even able to create a pseudo-reality of sorts in the book, derived principally from the use of real life super-rich personas as the novel’s main characters. 

Yet in the end, the book remains rather devoid of any sense of practical usefulness, failing to provide any sort of viable template for the realization of progressive change.  In fact, Nader’s whole literary vision hinges upon the reader accepting that a group of individuals who have spent their entire lives intently (and quite successfully) focused on amassing their exuberant wealth, have now suddenly conjured up some long dormant penchant for economic justice and equality.  It is rather akin to asking one to accept that it is in fact the arsonist who is best equipped to put out the fire.  He starts fires, you see, because he likes to put them out.  This presents quite a leap to demand from the reader, even when occurring in a utopian novel.  Furthermore, rather than conveying any sense of reader empowerment, the novel functions to do the very opposite.

The book’s account of a collection of billionaires saving the day—pardon the lack of a spoiler alert—leaves the reader with a rather shallow sense of hope.  Indeed, it indirectly validates idle passivity.  Participatory action in Nader’s visionary world, we learn, is entirely dependent on the personal financing and choreography of the benevolent super-rich.  A reflection of our money-driven political reality perhaps, but this is Nader’s utopia?  And although all the reforms offered in the book definitely sound great, the reader is left hoping for the real life super-rich to actually come forth and fund all these great ideas.  But, what a long and fruitless wait this would be.

There is no disputing the premise that fundamental change would indeed be easier if a group of 17 super-rich individuals were to pool their funds together to fight the good fight.  Just the same as ending our three wars would be immeasurably eased if Lockheed-Martin and Boeing were to actively join the fledgling peace movement.  It is this raw simplicity that appears to be the allure of the novel’s constructs for Nader. 

After spending a lifetime fighting for progressive change, Nader (as do we all) now finds himself in the midst of an ever-strengthening counterattack by the corporate class.  Meanwhile, instead of being celebrated as a stalwart of American democracy, he has become a pariah of the liberal class wit large and the Democratic Party establishment in particular (both of which still hold him accountable for the election of George W. Bush in 2000). 

It is in this context that Nader’s novel reads as a last desperate cry to be heard.  Progressive change remains in our reach if we’d only listen, we can hear Nader lamenting throughout.  But in his desperation to show us the way, Nader opts to construct nothing but a mirage—that of change originating from above. 

Such a vision, however, runs counter to how progressive change has always occurred in actuality, and thus leaves it of little practical use.  Throughout history, one shall recall, progressive change has always been driven from below—from the organized working class—not from elites pulling the strings to manipulate the masses.  The latter is of course the modus operandi of the corporate and reactionary right (seen currently in the Tea Party movement). 

Thus, Nader’s novel obscures the empowering truth that the working class possesses the necessary power for fundamental and transformative change on its own.  For it is the working class—not the tycoons of the unfettered capitalist order—that is the revolutionary class.  The eight-hour day, after all, did not come about due to dictates of liberal corporate executives; women did not win the right to vote due to suddenly enlightened legislators; and Jim Crow was not broken due to the repentance of racist Southern elites.  All these progressive leaps forward came instead when segments of the working class tapped into their own collective strength, formed powerful social movements, and then dictated change to the established order.  Progressive change, in short, originates organically.

Of course for the American working class to understand, and then renew, its historic role, consciousness must be raised from present levels.  And perhaps Nader’s utopia, as per his intent, can indeed work towards this end.  But far more likely, I venture, Nader’s novel will leave the working class reader with the opposite impression—that salvation is to be achieved via an elaborate orchestration from above, ideally from some nebulous and benign super-rich celebrity fused consortium.  How very wrong, though, this is. 

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