It is no great secret that power systems, when challenged, erect ideological barriers to protect themselves from destruction. This is true of any institution, no matter how illegitimate. Yet sometimes the gap between fact and preferred myth is so vast that dissent becomes more than optional but necessary. Such is the case in the 2013 Georgia Southern University commencement speech delivered by world-renowned theoretical physicist Michio Kaku. Described on the University website as “an expert in using research to predict trends affecting business, commerce and finance,” Kaku used this opportunity to advance a state-capitalist myth of individualism that has little, if any, resemblance to reality.
At the heart of Kaku’s speech was a doctrine that states if you work hard, “delay gratification”, and “know when to keep your mouth shut” you will achieve “success” and “prosperity”. Notably absent from this prescription was a sense of social and ethical responsibility or the human and moral costs that come with this quest for “success”. This absence was only accentuated further in Kaku’s enthusiastic embrace of the “wealth” and “luxuries” that “embellish” the lives of the educated classes, the fruits of enterprising “engineers” and “scientists”. This reductionist picture of how wealth is generated in America overshadows the long and ongoing history of market manipulation, environmental devastation, worker exploitation, and outright criminality that has served as a bedrock for the modern “industrial” economy. In fact, a brief look into intellectual history shows that this individualist conception of “success” has interesting origins which can be of some significance in deciphering the real meaning of Kaku’s version of “success”.
Nobel Prize winning economist and former University of Chicago professor Milton Friedman articulated this individualist worldview in explicit form in his 1971 introduction to the German edition of Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. “The socialists of all parties to whom Hayek dedicated this book must once again be persuaded or defeated if they and we are to remain free men,” he implored with the zeal of a religious fanatic. “The argument for collectivism is false; it is an immediate emotional argument. The argument for individualism is subtle and sophisticated; it is an indirect rational argument.” Friedman then proceeded to denounce “the bulk of the intellectual community,” so enraptured by collectivism that they turned to endorsing the “expansion of government power” as a way to “protect individuals from big bad corporations, relieve poverty, protect the environment, or promote ‘equality.'” Overly emotional academics of this brand did not, according to Friedman, “have the tune” of the Hayekian worldview which saw democracy not as an exercise in collective decision-making but, in Hayek’s words, “an individualist institution” leading the glorious march of “Western civilization”.
Years later the world was provided with a graphic illustration of what it meant to “have the tune” of the Hayek-Friedman vision as a group of economists known as the Chicago Boys applied these “individualist” doctrines to make Chile’s economy “scream” as the Nixon administration put it in their planning of what in Latin America is called the “other 9/11”, September 11, 1973 when socialist president Salvador Allende was overthrown in a US-backed military coup, ushering in an era of fascism that left several thousand Chileans tortured, “disappeared”, or dead. Similar individualist themes were perceivable, in less lethal form, in Kaku’s address. In addition to his blatant disregard for elementary principles of civic responsibility is the observation that his assertions simply had no basis in empirical fact. Kaku hailed technological innovations like Google Glass as if they were the miraculous inventions of solitary prodigies divorced from the coercive pressures of state-capitalism and its profit-driven logic.
Mainstream economic scholarship flatly refutes this notion. Take for example University of Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang who highlights, in meticulous detail, the overwhelming influence of intellectual property rights, also known as IPRs, in his groundbreaking work on the hypocrisies of “first world” development Bad Samaritans. “The days are over when technology can be advanced in laboratories by individual scientists alone. Now you need an army of lawyers to negotiate the hazardous terrain of interlocking patents,” Chang affirmed. And this “hazardous terrain” is not without its casualties. IPR’s in the pharmaceutical industry block “developing” countries in Africa and Asia from acquiring the vital drugs necessary to treat terminal illnesses like HIV/AIDs and Vitamin A deficiency despite the fact that “it is estimated that 124 million people in 118 countries in Africa and Asia are affected by VAD.” Perhaps these unsavory “externalities” of the American development model are too remote from the world of “wealth” and “luxury” to merit comment. After all, Kaku’s formula instructs that we should “know when to keep [our] mouths shut.” Incidentally, under Kaku’s formula courageous whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are uniquely ill-equipped for “success” due to their commitments to the American public over and above the prerogatives of power.
Another component of Kaku’s speech concentrated on the myth of upward mobility, the idea that if you work hard enough you can make it into the heavenly realm of “prosperity”. A corollary to this myth is that if you don’t make it you are lazy, shiftless, or lack sufficient motivation. As President Obama informed a gathering of Black graduates in his Morehouse University commencement address “no excuses”. Maybe one day this myth could be accepted as something more than sociopathic apologetics for state-capitalism but for now the empirical data insists otherwise. Anyone interested in testing the veracity of the “no excuses” doctrine can do so by looking at key economic indicators. The Economic Policy Institute just released their annual study on the State of Working America. The results are instructive.
In the introduction to the 2013 data on mobility the following is stated:
“Essential to the American Dream is the notion that hard work will create opportunities to succeed regardless of where you start in life or your race, ethnicity, or gender. However, an examination of mobility—movement up and down the income and living standards ladder—shows that turning this dream into reality has not been getting easier.”
Add to this the devastating fact that “Families headed by early baby boomers (born between 1945–1954) are the last generation (on average) to achieve higher living standards than the one that preceded them,” or the damnable injustice that “Among African-American children, 63 percent who start out in the bottom fourth of the income scale remain there as adults, compared to 32 percent of white children.” In this context, President Obama’s words carry a new, more insidious meaning. New York Times labor correspondent Steven Greenhouse provides even more revealing data in his 2008 examination of worker exploitation The Big Squeeze. “The conventional wisdom is that the United States is a land of boundless opportunity and mobility, but some studies show that mobility in America is actually declining and that the United States has less mobility than Canada, Scandinavia, Germany, and France,” writes Greenhouse, adding “the mobility problem is far worse for blacks than whites.”
The US educational system is also adversely affected by these deeply entrenched structures of class oppression evidenced by the reality that “three-fourths of the students attending the nation’s top 146 colleges come from the highest earning fourth of families, while just 10 percent come from the lowest-earning half and only 3 percent come from the bottom fourth.” Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz reinforces Greenhouse’s conclusions in his New York Times Op-Ed Equal Opportunity, Our National Myth where he states rather straightforwardly “it’s not that social mobility is impossible, but that the upwardly mobile American is becoming a statistical oddity.” “Americans are coming to realize that their cherished narrative of social and economic mobility is a myth,” Stiglitz continued. “Grand deceptions of this magnitude are hard to maintain for long — and the country has already been through a couple of decades of self-deception.”
All of these verifiable facts thoroughly discredit the myths propagated by Michio Kaku, foremost his assertion that the key to success is “delayed gratification”. If anything, this voluminous record of state-capitalist gangsterism paints a picture of a society where the most “successful” individuals are encouraged, on an ideological and systemic level, to maximize gratification without delay. How else can one explain a culture that decimated the economy through fraudulent loaning practices, subjects millions of Americans to unemployment, home foreclosures, starvation, and health crises only to receive a $700 billion publicly funded bailout and then responds to this moral catastrophe not by adopting a policy of reparative justice or accepting legal responsibility for their unlawful deeds but doubles down on their criminality?
In the case of Kaku, doctrinal constraints would likely force him to apply the final step of his formula (“know when to keep your mouth shut”) in response to this question but for the rest of us who aren’t silenced by the embellishments of “wealth” and “luxury” explanations for such a culture are not only available but quite obvious. World renowned political scientist Susan George calls them the Davos Class, an “Interchangeable, international, individually wealthy, nomadic,” class “with common attributes, speaking a common language and sharing a common ideology”, the holders of “illegitimate authority.” Adam Smith called them the “masters of the universe.” Occupy Wall Street famously called them “the 1%”. If we are to learn anything from Kaku’s speech it’s that there exists an ideological continuity between centers of power whether they be corporations, States, or the intellectual class that helps preserve these structures of domination. We have also learned one title that should not designate a member of this privileged class: 2014 Commencement Speaker.Sources: http://stateofworkingamerica.org/fact-sheets/mobility/ https://my.georgiasouthern.edu/index.php?option=com_content&id=1675 http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/16/equal-opportunity-our-national-myth/?_r=0
http://www.tni.org/article/democracy-danger-rise-illegitimate-authority Greenhouse, Steven. The Big Squeeze: Tough times for the American Worker. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Print. Hayek, Friedrich A. Von. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1994. Print. Chang, Ha-Joon. Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism. New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2008. Print.