John Havelock: The 1 percent have ruled for a long time

commentNovember 24, 2012 

Today's commentary comes to you from Venice, the end of an Italian tour starting in Rome and wandering through intervening communities far removed from Alaskan and American politics, no?

Well, still a shadow of interest here. The American election is fading into the past with a sense of relief. Romney represented the unknown and the possibility of instability. In Italy as the rest of Europe, his electioneering tactics made people nervous. His stated intention to name China a currency manipulator on "day one" reflected ignorance of the fragile complexity of international money markets. His bellicose shift to the right of Obama on Iran and the identification of Russia as the number one foe were also considered evidence of amateurism. Obama was the established pro.

What we let pass as froth from the to and fro of American politics alarmed Europeans. So now it is over. Europe breathes a sigh of relief and moves back to fretting over real global problems.

At home and in Europe, economic recession and cure are interrelated in origins and solutions. Things are much worse in Greece but instability is not noticeable to an American tourist in northern Italy. And, oh yes, an Alaskan still gets questions about "Sarah," seeing Russia from your doorstep, etc. Then there is amazement at the dumping of an asset like Petraeus over a romantic affair. How silly and unsophisticated the Americans are!

The local scenery brings to mind the 1 percent, let us call it the oligarch issue, a presence in Western politics through the ages. Italy's fabulous art and architecture all come from financing by its great families. The Medici and Borghese are prominent examples but hardly the only ones famous for producing popes, homicides, magnificent art and awesome architecture. In the late Middle Ages, roughly 800 to 1300 AD, military dynasties and then city states ruled feudal style with power established by hereditary principle, God's will and military force. Starting in the Renaissance, beginning roughly in the 14th century, the growth of commerce pushed economic power to the fore. Supported through alliances with the church, confirming God's approval of the status quo, the oligarchs added economic power to the arsenals of the privileged.

The Medici and the Borgia were the job creators. Hundreds of artisans and artists, domestic servants and guards owed their livelihood to the emerging forms of economic organization. Throughout Italy it is simply stunning to see what was done, without the benefit of modern technology, to build stuff. These great family alliances, demonstrated to each other and to the populace both their comparative, competitive power and the power of the established order of things by building castle-palaces and cathedrals decorated with artistic display in awesome quantity and quality beyond anything done since. In the Renaissance, largely untouched by democratic theory, the show of wealth demonstrated power -- don't mess with us or the world will come down on you.

Maybe today we need to believe in the order of things as they are even without intimidating display. What "is" must make sense so our lives make sense. Accordingly it is arguably natural that some families and some people lead lives of economic power necessarily accompanied by privileged consumption.

The harbors around the Italian and French Riviera, just as select ports in the Caribbean, are filled with giant, fully crewed yachts, ready for the occasional week of pleasure of an owner. Yachts are one of the few ways in which a shyer oligarchy now demonstrates wealth. There is no competition in tower height or palace size now. Mansions are less extravagant, usually discreetly concealed, though amazing conglomerations exist along select Florida waterways and other hangouts for serious money.

Nature and history appear to support the notion that hierarchy is inherent in the human condition and that some style of hierarchy is required to foster economic strength. It is less apparent that the rewards of those who organize the labor of others to produce wealth must be so disproportionate to the wealth of the community of which they are intrinsically a part.


John Havelock is a former Alaska attorney general.

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