Ralph Nader's new novel, "Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us," is a window into the world the consumer advocate and independent presidential candidate wishes he could create. It is a world where the corporate state is dismantled, citizens are restored to power and the inequities and injustices meted out to the poor and the working classes are reversed. Nader describes his book as a "practical utopia."
"Basically this book was written out of frustration," Nader tells me when we meet on a Saturday afternoon in Princeton, N.J. "Increasingly over the last 30 years the doors have shut on a lot of citizen groups in Washington, D.C. And every year, you put in your mental imagination, at least I did, ‘What did we need to have kept those doors open?' Did we need more organizers? Did we need more media? Did we need more money? Did we need better strategies? Did we need ways to motivate millions of people who haven't figured it out yet? And that's why this book was so easy to write."
The engines of reform in the bulky novel are 17 mega-billionaires or millionaires. It is an odd decision for a man who has spent his life making war on the power elite, but, as Nader notes, popular movements, along with labor and the press, are largely ineffectual or dead. The super-rich, he laments, "are probably all we have left." His main characters include figures such as Warren Buffett, George Soros, Ted Turner, Yoko Ono and Phil Donahue. The names of the villains, also often real-life characters, are mangled. Grover Norquist, for example, becomes Brovar Dortwist. The evil Dortwist owns a Doberman named Get'Em.
The super-rich ignite a progressive revolution using their enormous wealth. They recruit and fund citizen movements to challenge corporate power and its political puppets in Washington. The rich bring to the citizen movement what in reality it desperately lacks-billions in funding. The money, some $15 billion, makes it possible to sustain grass-roots movements to topple the oil industry, the insurance industry, arms manufacturers, the corporate media and Wall Street.
The book is Nader's quixotic answer to Ayn Rand's 1957 novel "Atlas Shrugged," a celebration of raw capitalism and one of Alan Greenspan's favorite works. Rand's book is more than 1,000 pages long, so Nader, coming in at just above 730 pages, has at least beaten his nemesis in economy of style. By the end of the book, everything Nader has fought to achieve for decades is accomplished. Popular democracy triumphs. There is an ascendancy of independent third parties. An independent press challenges the status quo. There is universal not-for-profit health care for all Americans. Vibrant labor unions defend the working class. Flourishing public schools educate the rich and poor alike, and pot is legal. There is something endearing and even touching about Nader's faith in the good.
"It's probably the most important book I've ever written," he says. "There is a magnitude and critical mass to the money necessary to facilitate the political and civic energies of the people, to put a lot of them on the ground full time."
"Do liberals and progressives think that by putting out great documentaries, great books, great exposés-and we're in the golden age of muckraking-something is going to change with the two-party tyranny, oligarchic and corporate control of Washington?" he asks. "If they think they're going to change anything, year after year, they are living a dystopia. And between a dystopia on the ground, one that's at least 30 years old, and this proposal, I think this one has a higher probability."
The trigger to the popular revolt occurs when Buffett is watching the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on television. The fictional Buffett reacts to the disarray and human suffering by taking truckloads of supplies to the embattled residents of New Orleans. An elderly woman encounters him delivering relief supplies, grabs his hands and tells him, "Only the super-rich can save us!" This call to arms haunts Buffett on his way back to his home in Omaha. He decides to convene a gathering of the wealthy, or at least wealthy people with a conscience, in Maui in January 2006 to retake America.
The fantasy of the rich going to the rescue of ordinary Americans is born out of Nader's deep despair over the decline of our democratic mass movements. It will take angels-and this is what the super-rich become in the book-to descend from the heights to save the country from corporate neofeudalism.
"I think something's happened-50 years of looking at screens," Nader reflects. "The young generation is spending 50 hours a week at least in front of the Internet, television and video games. Two-to-5-year-olds, in a survey [published in October], ... watched 32 hours of television and DVDs a week. Two-to-5-year-olds! We don't tend to weigh the consequences. When you're in virtual reality-it's not like they're watching a re-creation of the Federalist discussion-then something happens. They don't know what a town meeting is like. They don't know what the words civic engagement mean."
"The other thing is the massive entrenchment of corporate power," he says. "The corporations have weakened the labor movement. The two parties, under the influence of corporate power, are converging. These corporations game the electoral process. Money and politics is cleverly distributed. They have deregulated the regulatory state. They are beginning to block the courtroom door. All the countervailing forces, which were built up in the late 19th century and the early 20th century to curb corporate power, are powerless."
In the book, set in 2006, the handful of wealthy renegades work in secret for the first six months. They form alternative sources of power such as a People's Chamber of Commerce to organize tens of thousands of small businesses. They buy time to saturate the airwaves with populist messages and distract right-wing talk show hosts, who have names like Bush Bimbo and Pawn Vanity, with the kind of faux controversies that are the staple of trash-talk television and radio. The movement, for example, proposes changing the national anthem from "The Star-Spangled Banner" to "America the Beautiful." The talk show hosts swallow the bait.
"The dialogue is rather good on that," Nader says.
The movement also persuades hundreds of inner-city schoolteachers to instruct pupils, when they pledge allegiance to the flag, to end with the phrase "liberty and justice for some," instead of "for all."
"Pawn Vanity and Bush Bimbo, they went nuts on that one for weeks," Nader laughs. "And there's even a congressional hearing on that. I put a lot of my frustrated experiences in this book. All the things you couldn't really do, because the money wasn't there. Can you imagine the sense of freedom? I didn't have to use one footnote either. See, there's utopian fiction in all of us, all of us who have struggled to improve their community or nation or world. And when we haven't won, we do consciously or subconsciously say ‘If we only had this,' or ‘If we only had that.' If we don't continue to elevate our imaginations we cannot envision possibilities."
No progressive vision of heaven would be complete without the destruction of Wal-Mart, which occupies many pages, as well as electoral reform.
"There's a section of the book on how they [those in the new movement] organize the most redneck, right-wing district in southwest Oklahoma against the chairman of the House Rules Committee," Nader says. "I put a lot of my frustration in that too. There's a lot of conversation about how conservative people started gravitating towards this movement, and why, and on what issues. As I said, they didn't write anybody off. It's a way to show that when you go down the abstraction ladder, to the daily lives of people, the so-called labels of conservative and liberals are not indelible. A conservative worker in Wal-Mart who wants a living wage will not say ‘I want to be paid $7.50 an hour because it helps Wal-Mart's bottom line.' When Toyota recalls cars because the throttle is sticking to the floor mat, is your reaction to the recall different if you're a liberal or a Republican? Are you going to say ‘I still want the freedom to go onto a highway'? The discussions on cable and radio are about abstract, ideological conflicts. They are empirically stark. I wanted to show what would happen if you brought it down to people's daily lives to appeal to their value system and sense of fair play. If I wrote this as nonfiction nobody would believe me. You have to write it as fiction. It gives you that imaginative elbowroom."
"I went to Princeton and Harvard Law School," Nader says. "We never talked about the commonwealth that the people owned. One-third of America's public lands, plus what is offshore, belongs to the people. We own them. But the oil, gas, uranium and the gold and silver industries control them. They take our resources for nothing or five bucks an acre. A Canadian gold company discovered $9 billion worth of our gold in Nevada in public lands over a decade ago. They got ownership of it for $30,000 under the 1872 Mining Act. The Department of the Interior had to sell them the projected acreage over the mine for five bucks an acre. We grow up corporate, even in the Ivy League universities. The public owns the airwaves, along with trillions of dollars of government research and development, along with the pension funds that the corporations control. The corporations don't care who owns anything, as long as they control it. All this money that Wall Street played around with, they didn't own most of it. It was other people's money. It was pension funds, mutual funds, but they controlled it. So what they [the new movement] did in this book was they educated people. They got hundreds of people around TV station buildings, two, three hours before the early evening news, and they had signs saying ‘PAY RENT,' because the television stations use our airwaves free and have since radio started. We're the landlords. They are the tenants, but they decide who says what and who doesn't on radio and TV, and they don't pay rent to the Federal Communications Commission."
"What would the framers of the Constitution say about the state of our country today?" Nader asks. "Well, they would say that the important parts of the Constitution are a dead letter. They are being ignored. Look at the equal protections clause between corporations as entities and real human beings. The declaration-of-war clause is dead. The one thing the framers never anticipated was that a branch of government-judicial, executive or legislative-would ever give up its power willingly to another branch. They didn't anticipate Congress abdicating its power to the executive branch. And it's getting worse and worse."
"Appropriation power is supposed to start in the House," Nader says. "Who's kidding who? It starts in the Office of Management and Budget. So as a result they didn't give us any revenue. No American can challenge this in a court of law, because they would not have any standing to sue. The case would be thrown out. And members of Congress don't have standing to sue over this violation of the Constitution, of their own authority. The only one who may have standing to sue is the attorney general, and the attorney general is not going to sue the president. So that's a very serious situation. We're getting a de facto destruction of the separation of powers. Madison and others did not want anybody but Congress to deliberate and take our country to war. They were adamant about this. In The New York Times, after Obama's [Dec. 1] speech, they had on the jump page a little paragraph that said President Obama will expand the war into Pakistan, if he can work with a weak and dysfunctional Pakistan government. Hello? Who gave him authority to do that? Is he going to the Air Force Academy in a year to talk about the war in Pakistan? We have accepted, as a people, that the president can go anywhere in the world, with any troops, at any time, under any pretext. Period."
"There are a lot of good people in this country who may not agree on some things, but they agree a lot on things that the mass media never emphasizes," Nader says. "But they've persuaded themselves they're powerless. Why didn't you show up? It doesn't make any difference. I was busy. Busy, doing what? Well, I had to take the kids to soccer practice. Half of democracy's showing up. There is demoralization. How do these super-rich people turn the motivation to action? How do they turn a demoralized, powerless population to action? You start with imagination. William Blake said his residence was his imagination. That's what's been squeezed out of us and out of our children. And children are the most imaginative human beings, but they have their imagination squeezed out of them with standardized testing and rote learning, etc., etc. We've got to make real-life discussions like this exciting so they happen again and again."