Guest Post: Frugality Or Fragility?

Submitted by 'Jim in MN',

The hallmark of human nature is adaptability.  Faced with a changing environment, the human spirit and its social manifestations change in response.  But once the human endeavor itself creates the environment, how can such adaptation be a simple exercise in instinct?  Simply put, it cannot.  For better or for worse, the subjective element must dictate the outcome.  This subjective element is often called judgment.  But under today’s circumstances, a better term might be ‘taste’.  The question then becomes: do the powerful have good taste?  The fate of the rest of us hangs on the answer, as the fate of the slave rests upon the master’s whim.

Consider the global financial crisis.  The unfettered power and unrestrained corruption that is the hallmark of today’s society has been allowed to play out with predictable results.  There is no need to document the disaster that has befallen the people around the world, saddled with debt, stuck with stagnant wages if they can find work at all, and subject to worsening standards of living, with civil liberties eroding so quickly that only the authorities seem to know what is left on any given day (and they’re not telling).

Throughout all of this, the global elites have displayed consistently worsening signs of decadence, psychopathic tendencies, and overall detachment from reality.  And who can blame them?  There has been no tap on the shoulder, no knock on the door, no raid on the office to indicate that anything is seriously wrong.  The destruction of a generation’s potential, the removal of trillions from the rest of the population has not been punished.  It has been handsomely, indeed shamelessly, rewarded.

Chrystia Freeland, writing in The Atlantic in early 2011, noted this increasing abstraction from reality, based on her experience trailing and interviewing the global elite:

This plutocratic fantasy is, of course, just that: no matter how smart and innovative and industrious the super-elite may be, they can’t exist without the wider community. Even setting aside the financial bailouts recently supplied by the governments of the world, the rich need the rest of us as workers, clients, and consumers. Yet, as a metaphor, Galt’s Gulch has an ominous ring at a time when the business elite view themselves increasingly as a global community, distinguished by their unique talents and above such parochial concerns as national identity, or devoting “their” taxes to paying down “our” budget deficit. They may not be isolating themselves geographically, as Rand fantasized. But they appear to be isolating themselves ideologically, which in the end may be of greater consequence.

Taste, in the end, may dictate destiny.  If this seems as alarming as it is trite, rest assured that it is.  Just as one’s taste in food can run to fish or fowl, so the taste of the elite can run a different, more critical gamut—from risk aversion to risk seeking.  In a terminally decadent, corrupt society, fantasy runs rampant.  Reality has little consequence, and therefore plays an increasingly removed, abstracted role in setting limits on behavior.  While we gape at the grotesque excesses of a Caligula, our global elites run financial schemes that are no less shocking. 

The filigreed madness and the outright lies embedded in today’s routine financial scams, carefully evaluated for their nearness to the legal line in slide shows crafted from the finest, most velvety color palettes, would put Roman or Babylonian deviants to shame.  The number of lives sacrificed to maintain these delicate minarets of risk would make Genghis Khan blush. 

It would be far more honest, and possibly more aesthetic, for the elite to wear the bones of their victims as trophies stuck through their noses.  But that would require truly colossal noses. 

We have arrived at the end of the line, like Micheal Moorcock’s poignant, omniscient partygoers in ‘The Hollow Lands’, who have endless reserves of power, but little left to do with it (a typical sentiment being something like: "’I enjoyed Flags,’ he said. ‘Particularly when My Lady Charlotina made that delicious one which covered the whole of the western hemisphere.’").

The more the tastes of the elite run to risky business, the more fragile the complex edifice of global finance becomes.  Spectacular failures, mind-boggling crashes, and mighty people instantly reduced to public mockeries through their own perversion or crimes become the norm.  In this madhouse of absolute power, would it be so strange to hear of another Incitatus?  The original, of course, being the favorite horse of the Emperor Caligula:

To prevent Incitatus, his favourite horse, from growing restive he always picketed the neighbour-hood with troops on the day before the races, ordering them to enforce absolute silence. Incitatus owned a marble stable, an ivory stall, and a jewelled collar; also a house, furniture, and slaves - to provide suitable entertainment for guests whom Caligula invited in its name. It is said that he even planned to award Incitatus a consulship.


Suetonius: Caligula 55

Such is the contemporary reality we live in.  People try to live their lives, to avert their eyes, to hide their children from the sight and effect of the monstrous cavorting of the elites.  But they loom above all others on the horizon, intent on their self-aggrandizing excesses, like a constant, living, writhing surrealist mountain range.  And the uncaring fragments of the elites’ collapsing ‘entertainments’ rain down like meteors upon the rest of the population.

Perhaps a crazed fad for frugality will break out and suppress the urges of the elites.  In the meantime, hide your valuables as well as you can, and treat your children with the sympathy they deserve.  They are among the chief victims of our era’s unholy orgies of risk and corruption.  Frugality or fragility?  The choice is yours, as well as theirs.