REAGANOMICS AS A SACRIFICIAL RITUAL
“Cut, Slash, Chop”
The scene is a familiar one for most psychotherapists. The patient tells the therapist in his initial interview what he believes is his main problem: “I seem to be unlucky with women. I’ve been married three times, and each of my wives left me for another man. And now my girlfriend has just left me too. How can I stop women from being unfaithful to me?”
Therapists hear similar complaints daily. “All my boyfriends treat me like dirt.” “I keep running into bosses who do nothing but fight with me.” “Every career I’ve tried is boring.” “None of the women I meet want to get close.” Faced with such repetitive life patterns, one of the hardest tasks of the therapist is to point out to the patient that their ma-jor complaint is also their major wish-that they unconsciously choose unfaithful wives, uncaring boyfriends or hostile bosses in order to avoid the anxiety aroused in themselves if they were to enjoy their families, love lives or work too much.
Imagine, then, how difficult it becomes to analyze a nation’s psyche. Imagine Uncle Sam on a couch, describing what he believes to be his main problem: “I seem unable to enjoy a really sustained success at anything. I keep getting into periods of depression during which I lose much of what I’ve worked so hard to gain. Why, in this century alone, I’ve gone through twelve major cycles of boom and bust, and I seem con-demned to repeat the pattern endlessly. And to top it all off, just as things seem to be looking up, I get involved in a war that puts me even more behind, so that I’m now over a trillion dollars in debt. How can I stop my bad luck?”
If this were the complaint of an individual, the therapist would not hesitate to diagnose a “success neurosis, a manic-depressive pattern”
which the patient unconsciously brings about in order to limit the anxiety aroused by success through periodic self-destructive acts. Yet it seems to go against conventional wisdom to entertain the notion that our collec-tive life might be an extension of our individual lives, with repetitive patterns brought about by unconscious wishes. Despite the astonishing regularity of business cycles (every eight years on the average for developed countries)(1) and of wars (every twenty years on the average for most nations),(2) they have never been considered as wishes, ways of limiting the anxiety caused by the enjoyment of our lives through periodic self-destructive scenerios which we ourselves carefully stage. Like the patient who sees his problems as the result of “mistakes” in his life, conventional wisdom sees economic and political crises as the result of collective ”mistakes,” whether they be ”mistakes of overinvestment,” “mistakes in fiscal policy,” “mistakes in the money supply” or “the mistakes of Munich.” Business cycles and war cycles are rarely seen as being motivated.
The reason social problems so often seem to be a result of mistakes is that most social analysis has been based on a model of “economic man,” who is seen as acting in his or her own self-interest, maximizing pleasures, working rationally, spending wisely and saving prudently. This assumption requires that one overlooks the embarrassing fact that those whom one knows personally resemble the model of “economic man” very poorly if at all. One’s neighbors seem often to spend unwisely, save little, have work difficulties or drink excessively, or are too depressed or too timid or too rigid or too bored or too angry either to fully use their talents or to really enjoy their family lives. In reality, people are every bit as irrationally human as current novels report them to be, and are more likely to fit a model which shows them as limiting their pleasures and abilities than as maximizing them. Even those who do manage to experience success at work often seem to end up either disliking what they do or sacrificing their family lives or love lives or health “to their jobs.” People who are psychologically healthy enough to succeed and enjoy their work and their possessions and their families and their sex lives turn out to be rare indeed in the real world.
But if most individuals limit their satisfactions and sacrifice their talents, earnings and pleasures so as not to provoke too much guilt from excessive enjoyment of living, so too must nations made up of these same individuals do so. A sound theory of psychoeconomics must therefore include an investigation of the various strategies by which nations engage in surplus destruction as well as surplus creation-strategies which include periodic booms, busts and wars.
Contemporary economists occasionally stumble upon the possibility of self-destructive motivations, but since their model only allows “economic man” to be rational, they dismiss the notion as obviously too
|TO CLEAN THEIR PSYCHES||53|
crazy to entertain seriously. Often one reads authors who, after attempt-ing to explain business cycles according to rational models, find them so insufficient that they throw up their hands and say, as does Paul Samuelson, that it almost seems as if people “wantonly pursue a manic-depressive pattern and thereby create the business cycle,”(3) or, as does Robert E. Lucas, Jr., that one is tempted “to suggest that people like depressions.”(4) But the authors quickly back away from their momentary psychological insights and return to their basic model of rational “economic man” and his unmotivated “mistakes.”
The most obvious place to observe these self-destructive acts in opera-tion is in primitive groups, which spend much of their time destroying their surplus in sacrifices to their gods. In fact, the reason that contemporary primitives have remained at a low technological level is precisely because they have continued for millennia to sacrifice their surpluses, while more advanced groups long ago began to allow their surpluses to accumulate and produce economic progress.(5) The consciences (superegos) of primitives are so severe-due to their poor childrearing practices(6) – that they rarely allow themselves to own anything as in-dividuals. What they produce, they do so mainly for the group as a whole. Reciprocal gift-giving rather than individual ownership and trade is the main basis of their economic systems. What surplus they manage to accumulate during the year they destroy in yearly sacrificial rituals “to the gods” (to their severe consciences), burning, consuming or otherwise destroying surplus food and goods to prevent their guilt from building up. The annual sacrifice of these goods becomes a ritual of revitalization of group life, a way to clean their psyches of the accumulated guilt produced by the surplus-building efforts of the previous year.(7)
For example, the Northwest Coast Kwakiutl Indians accumulate a rich supply of animal and fish all year long. By the end of the year they feel so guilty about their surplus that they halt all economic activity for several months while holding complex Winter Ceremonials in which their stated aim is to compete to see who can give away and destroy the most food and goods. The individuals who destroy the most surplus receive the most prestige, because they contribute most to “taming the Man Eater,” the god who wants to “swallow wealth.”(8) At the Winter Ceremonial, a dancer portrays the Man Eater, and the central myth that is enacted in the ritual is the feeding of food, goods and even corpses to the voracious, devouring mouth of the god.
Kwakiutl Indians bring up their children very severely, tying up (swaddling) their babies for three years to “control their appetites,” harshly weaning them and teaching them every minute of their lives that their desires are bad and that if they dare to enjoy anything they risk turning into cannibal-children. It is not surprising that when these children grow up they become adults who are afraid of their every impulse, and instead put their repressed desires into the outside world, which is then seen as
being “filled with mouths. . . a world filled with omnipresent man-made images whose mouths betray their greed.”(9) It is this world of hungry mouths, of monstrous appetites – ultimately, of their own hunger for love – which must be “tamed” at their annual cannibalistic rituals.
Primitive cannibalistic rituals were seen as necessary to “tame the Man Eater,” our own appetites.
|So, too, in other primitive groups, the guilt which is built up during the year is cleansed through the annual destruction of the group’s surplus, through a “feeding of the gods,” a “taming” of each individual’s own devouring wishes, whiletheir goods, they also destroying the surplus which produced the guilt in the first place.Different groups accomplish this periodic sacrifice in different ways. The African Ankole “feed” cattle, milk, grain, beer and even humans to their Royal Drum, which is the container into which they inject all their poisonous devouring wishes.(10) The Ashanti have a “Golden Stool” which acts as a similar poison container. The Baganda have a “King’s Placenta” which accomplishes their cleansing ceremonies. In Dahomey, the king sat on a giant platform, and the entire country would cleanse the evil spirits in their midst by “feeding the king” with cattle, food and cowne-money, gifts which they believed physically carried the poisonous pollution (their own feelings), which only the king could cleanse.(11)|
When primitive groups meet more advanced people and dramatically increase invariably increase their sacrificial efforts to destroy their new surplus and avoid the guilt brought about by their unaccustomed wealth. Thus, early in the twentieth century, when the Kwakiutl met the white man and increased their prosperity a hundred-fold. through trade, they simultaneously increased their Winter Ceremonials, transforming what originally was a modest sacrifice of goods into a massive ritual where thousands of blankets and other valuable objects were given away, burnt or thrown into the river in order to “tame” their newly-provoked desires.(12) In addition, when surplus increases, sacrificial warfare also increases. By the time a group reaches the level of a kingdom, what was at an earlier level only small raiding parties evolves into the organized warfare of early states, involving virtually continuous warfare with tens of thousands of professional soldiers.
The Aztecs, for example, sacrificed to a sun-god as their “Man Eater,” and since their childrearing allowed them to build up more surplus than their earlier forebears, their sun-god had to contain an enormous amount of their greedy desires. Their “Man Eater” was seen as so
|CONTRIBUTIONS OF BLOOD||55|
voracious that it had to be fed real blood to satisfy its appetite, and every man, woman and child would regularly draw blood from their thighs, arms and genitals to “feed” to the sun (their own severe consciences) to prevent it from becoming angry and plunging the world into darkness.(13)
The Aztecs sacrificed humans to feed the sun and quench its appetite.
|Yet even regular contributions of blood by the people did not satisfy the sun-god’s appetite, so ritual human sacrifice on a huge scale was practiced by the Aztecs, in which the still-beating hearts of captives were torn from their chests and fed into the sacrificial fire to “renew the vitality” of the group. Huge piles of skulls were arranged on a rack near the temples to show the gods how many victims the group had sacrificed lately, and the priests and others would emulate the sun’s appetite for human flesh by eating portions of the people who had been sacrificed.(14) War, too, served the blood thirst of the gods. Young men, pledged since birth to die and give their blood to the sun, vied for the honor of sacrificing themselves on the battlefield.(15) ‘If the usual wars with neighbors did not suffice to feed the gods enough blood, the priests would complain to the army, and volunteers would march out to a nearby battlefield, divide up into equal groups and slaughter each other until the gods were finally satisfied.(16)|
Despite all this sacrificial activity during the year, the wealth of the Aztecs continued to increase, and so did their guilt. Every 52 years,(17) therefore, their sun-god would become so polluted with the people’s poisonous guilt feelings that the end of the world would threaten. Time would stop, the sun would die and a new sun would have to be born to prevent the gods from descending and eating up every last Aztec on earth. The New Fire Ceremony which accomplished this periodic major guilt-cleansing was the Aztec’s most sacred ritual. All economic activity would slow to a halt during this dangerous time, and the priests would mount a hill, carrying a distinguished warrior for sacrifice. Just as the night grew darkest, as the sun sank deepest, perhaps never to return, the priests would rip out the heart of the victim and offer it to the fire-god. In the victim’s chest cavity where his heart (the old sun) had been, the priests would place a sacred fireboard. A new fire would be lit in the chest cavity, symbolizing the birth of the new sun. This fire would then be used to re-light all the sacred bonfires in the kingdom, and people who saw them would rejoice because they knew the sun had died and been reborn, cleansed of pollution through human sacrifice.
It is only by using a model of society based on the shared fantasy of a dying sun and of the periodic sacrifice of the few in order to cleanse the feelings of the many that the policies of Reagan’s America can be understood.
Reagan pictured as head priest to a Voicker-god who demands human sacrifices.
The Federal Reserve was seen as needing the blood of all Americans.
|In this model, the role of the chief sacrificial priest was taken by Ronald Reagan, and that of the sun-god, the blood-thirsty idol of the temple – the Man Eater, complete with sacrificial fire and bones of victims – by Paul Volcker, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank. The “economic crisis which Reaganomics was designed to cure was, like that of the Aztecs, seen as a condition of moral pollution, as a shortage of blood (investment capital) and as a time when everything was “out of control.” Only a “Time of Sacrifice” was believed to be able to tame the appetite of the gods (our own feelings) and allow us to be reborn and cleansed of our guilt for the surplus of recent years.It was the major task of Reaganomics to provide America with this Time of Sacrifice. This would be accomplished by slow-ing down the economy through bleeding our life-blood (our money supply), by frightening the people (with high interest rates and huge deficits), by vastly exaggerating dangers (of inflation, of debt, of the strength of enemies) and by welfare cuts and planned unemployment which sacrificed symbols of our desires (women, children, the poor, the unemployed.) if our Time of Sacrifice was successful, the guilt-producing surplus of recent|
|THE INTERNAL SACRIFICE||57|
|years could be drained away (the polluted blood cleans-ed), the upsetting social changes of recent years could be reversed (our sin-ful excesses expiated) and we could allow a rebirth of our economic sun by releas-ing once again the supply of money and credit, rejoicing that the spectre of too much pleasure had been averted and the body politic had been purged of its impurities. This cleansing function of Reaganomics was in fact so paramount that it included the building up of a huge new war capacity, anticipating that if the internal sacrifice of victims of the recession did not suffice to make us feel better, we, like the Aztecs, could move to an external sacrifice, a military encounter, which could provide us with additional sacrificial victims.It must not be imagined that phrases such as “the victims of Reaganomics” are purely metaphorical. An effective sacrifice requires a real Man Eater and real deaths. lt is not too dif-ficult to determine the approximate number of additional deaths brought about during Reagan’s Time of Sacrifice. A careful statistical analysis has been made by the Congressional Joint Economic Committee of the average increase in mortality rates during recessions for suicide, homicide, cardiovascular deaths and other indices of mortality affected by economic activity. Extended to the present period, these rates show that approximately 150,000 additional deaths can be attributed to the effects of Reaganomics.(18) To this figure must be added the deaths attributable to Reagan’s budget-cutting efforts – mainly those aimed at the tens of millions of women and children helped by government programs-such as the deaths||
Reaganomics had to plunge the economic sun below the horizon for a Time of Sacrifice.
Women and children were seen as good sacrificial victims.
caused by the reduction in child nutrition programs, in Aid to Families With Dependent Children, in nutrition programs for low-income pregnant women, in the Federal School Lunch Program, in funds for handicapped children, in disability benefits and so on. The direct cutting of such aid easily pushes the death toll for Reaganomics far over the150,000 figure.(19) Finally, this figure does not include the indirect deaths produced by such effects as the reduction in environmental protection enforcement, cuts in aid to philanthropic organizations, including UNICEF, the loss of health insurance by millions of unemployed workers, the deaths in underdeveloped countries affected by the Reagan recession and many other similarly lethal actions.
Three million children were cut from the school lunch program.
|That the Congress which passed the Reagan program so willingly during his early months knew full well that these 150,000 dead men, women and children were being sacrificed on the economic altar is clear. As Rep. Phil Gramm, co-sponsor of Reagan’s budget bill, put it at the time of its passage, “We are shooting real bullets.”(20) That we, too, knew at some level the lethal effects of Reaganomics is also clear. We laughed at the comedian David Frye when he impersonated Reagan by saying that he had “found a way to reduce our over-population without abortion – by increasing our suicide rate” because in our hearts we knew that we ourselves had hired the priests who would preside over the Time of Sacrifice. When 1981 polls showed 70 percent of Americans felt that Reagan’s economic program was “fair and equitable,” we were saying we approved of this sacrifice of over 150,000 men, women and children.|
Although it is difficult to believe, many of those sacrificed to Reaganomics approved of the sacrifice. The following Washington Post survey of the victims of Reaganomics, taken in 1983, summarizes the feelings of those out of work, those whose families were ill and could not be treated because of lack of medical insurance, those whose lives were ruined by the Reagan recession:
We don’t blame you [Reagan] for the recession. We’d gotten too fat, too comfortable, too uncompetitive. Our standards aren’t as high as they used to be and there’s plenty of blame to go around. . . Besides, we still believe in those Puritan values you talk about. Perhaps we had to suffer to purge ourselves of our excesses.(21)
|THE TIME OF SACRIFICE||59|
All modern nations go through a similar Time of Sacrifice every eight years or so, in as inexorable a drama as the periodic sacrificial rite of the Aztecs. The phases of the business cycle are quite thoroughly understood by economists. Only the motivations have remained unexplored. There are three major phases in each cycle, depending upon the changing attitudes of people toward work and pleasure. These are The Time of Work, The Time of Mistakes and The Time of Sacrifice.
The Time of Work begins when, after the purging of guilt of the previous recession, people feel for a time that they now are allowed to innovate, invest, work, spend and even enjoy the fruits of their labors. The new innovative activity is led by a minority within the nation, a new, more optimistic “psychoclass,” people who have been brought up somewhat more lovingly and less afraid of their impulses than the rest of the nation.(22) This new psychoclass is able to expand the nation’s produc-tion through new products and new processes undreamed of by the older, more repressed psychoclasses. The Time of Work-whether it be the New Era Prosperity of the 1920s or the New Frontier and Great Society of the 1960s-uses the full resources of the nation, expanding production without producing inflation and spreading prosperity to more of those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Within a few years, the growing guilt of the majority of the nation (especially the older psychoclasses) about this wide-based prosperity soon produces a Time of Mistakes, when nothing seems to go right. This phase begins a two-stage manic-depressive cycle, as nations-exactly like individuals who are manic-depressive-first try to ward off their guilt about too much success by “manic” activity. The “mistakes” include overspending, unwise investments, inflationary wage demands and pricing policies, overextensions of the money supply and credit structures, overstocking of inventories, real estate manias, foolish loans abroad and a whole range of ways of getting rid of the guilt-tainted surplus. Economic historians who study this phase of the business cycle are puzzled as to why so many mistakes are suddenly made by so many sec-tions of the economy. In some nations, where most of the people have been brought up very strictly-such as in Weimar Germany – the manic printing of money can produce a hyperinflation so severe that all money becomes worthless. The economy then grinds to a halt, removing the guilt, and the government can then “rectify its mistakes” and stop the thousands of printing presses from working overtime.(23)
The third phase of the business cycle, the Time of Sacrifice, is usually seen as a reversal of the manic, or inflationary, phase, but it actually is a continuation of its guilt-reducing process, only now all economic activity is “depressed” rather than wildly sped up. A fantasy is shared during this phase that things had gotten “out of control.” The nation is imagined to be a giant body with two parts: a top, which must be fed, and a
bottom, which must be punished. The role of the top part of the body is taken by the rich, and the fantasy is the familiar “trickle-down theory”-that if the rich are fed, the poor might somehow benefit. It is the same fantasy expressed by the primitive Anyi of Africa, when they used to say as they brought gifts to their king and his court in time of trouble, “When the king’s breasts are full of milk, it is his people who drink.”(24) All “supply-side economics is based on this magical fantasy, whether carried out by David Stockman in the 1980s or Andrew Mellon in the 192Os. What we wanted was to “let the hogs feed,” as Stockman phrased it,(25) to make the rich fatter, under the delusion that we were all infants dependent upon their maternal breasts for our sustenance.
That the “supply side” argument for feeding the rich-supposedly as a way to increase investment-was thoroughly irrational was revealed by studies made by the Federal Reserve Bank, Business Week and others(26) which showed that America’s investment rate was actually at its highest in decades, that there existed “a record $80 billion pile of ready cash” available for investing whenever the demand existed and that money shifted to the wealthier part of the nation at the expense of everyone else would only dry up demand further and produce lower, not higher, in-vestment. Few were surprised, then, when, as the Reagan plan took effect, investment plunged rather than rose. “Supply side” tax cuts for business and the wealthy had only felt right; few claimed it could be demonstrated as right. As Senator Howard Baker admitted when he passed the program, “What we’re doing is really a river boat gamble. we’re gambling that this new economics will work.”(27)
The other task of the Time of Sacrifice, that of “punishing the bot-tom,” involved a similarly delusional fantasy shared by most of the nation – that we were bad in enjoying so much prosperity and that part of us must suffer for our badness. Just as when we were children it was our bottoms which had to be punished, so too the bottom half of the body politic-the poor, the unemployed, women and children on welfare-would have to be punished for the indulgences of the rest of us. The first thing which was necessary was to strangle our economic bloodstream, our money supply. We suddenly “discovered” monetarism and reversed the growth of our monetary supply, “bleeding” our economic system of its life – giving blood, precisely as doctors used to bleed their patients to remove the “polluted” blood which they imagined had been produced by “overindulgences in food and sex.”(28) It was, of course, not just a “mistake” for the Federal Reserve Bank to allow too much money in the Seventies and then suddenly to squeeze the money supply so hard that interest rates went to 20 percent and no one could buy cars or houses. It was, rather, the purpose of the Fed to produce these erratic swings in money supply, in accordance with the manic-depressive cycle. If they hadn’t done so, we would never have had a Time
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of Sacrifice, and within a few decades our steady growth in productivity would soon have produced so much surplus that everyone in America would be living comfortable, and we would have no poor whom we could make suffer for our guilt.
In a similar vein, it is only when the sacrificial, “purging” nature of Reaganomics is taken into account that what seemed to be its conflicting parts can be viewed as a coherent whole. It has often been demonstrated that the two parts of Reaganomics-monetarism and “supply side” tax cuts – don’t make sense hitched together. Economist James Tobin states the case clearly:
The idea that money and prices can be detached and delegated to central bankers while Congress and the executive independently take care of budget, taxes, employment and output is the kind of fallacy that makes exam questions for freshman economics, a fallacy now elevated to presidential doctrine. If Amtrak hitches engines at both ends of a train of cars. . . one engine heading west to New York, the other east to Boston, and advertises that the train is going simultaneously to both destinations, most people would be skeptical. Reagan is hitching a Voicker engine at one end and a Stockman-Kemp locomotive to the other and telling us the economic train will carry us to full employment and disinflation at the same time.(29)
What Tobin overlooks is that providing a train with two engines going in different directions is a plan designed to produce a train wreck, i.e., purposely set up to reduce surplus, sacrifice productive capacity and provide victims of the crash. The “supply side” tax cuts of Stockman were the “feed the rich” fantasy and the monetarism of Volcker was the punish the poor” fantasy. Reagan implemented both at the same time as a way of insuring the sacrifice of the minority to relieve the conscience of the majority. The only question which remained was, as Stockman told one reporter, “How much pain was the new President willing to impose? “(30)
When Stockman put his budget figures into the computer and found that even with the most optimistic assumptions Reagan’s actions would produce deficits in excess of $100 billion, he told the Atlantic Monthly reporter that he found the figures “frightening – ‘absolutely shocking,’ he confided – yet he seemed oddly exhilerated by the bad news.”(31) Why exhilarated by the bad news”? Because he knew we had hired him to produce bad news, to produce a Time of Sacrifice, to produce 150,000 victims.
David Stockman was assigned the job of chief executioner who would “cut, slash and chop” the victims.
|Similarly, the huge rise in defense spending – $l.6 trillion in five years – complemented rather than contradicted the other parts of the Reagan program, because it, too, destroyed surplus which we otherwise might have enjoyed. Military spending solves a crucial problem of post – World War II economics of nations. Since childrearing has improved since World War II, nations in the West have recently replaced Great Wars and Great Depressions by limited wars and limited recessions. The result is that, in America, our real Gross National Product since World War II has jumped by over 30 percent a decade, a prosperity so unprecedented that if it continued unabated it could soon do away with poverty for good. One way we have found to prevent this from happening has been to pour $2 trillion into the military since World War II, using up resources which, if they had been put instead into new technology, would have given America a productivity rate far exceeding even that of Japan (which accomplished its “miracle of modernization” simply by spending very little on their military.)(32)|
Reagan’s task was seen as “taming the Man Eater” through budget cuts and military buildup
|This “disinvestment” strategy of ensuring low productivity by draining resources into military expenditures is further sustained by the shared fantasy of most Americans that the Man Eater-the International Communist Serpent, really our own projected feelings-was growing and was about to devour us at any moment. By the time of Reagan’s election, after the prosperity of the Seventies, fully 71 percent of Americans said we must spend more for the military.(33) That this involved an enormous increase in useless and highly dangerous|
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military expenditures-almost a billion dollars a day, every dollar of which is drained from our present or future pleasures-is not a drawback. It is an unconscious purpose. An extra billion dollars a day in pleasure would simply be intolerable to our puritanical consciences.
It cannot be emphasized too strongly that it was pleasure which was the enemy that Reaganomics was designed td defeat. It is no coincidence that the bible of Reaganomics, George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty, was written by a man who had become famous writing anti-feminist books opposing the sexual revolution, saying that men have been “cuckolded by the compassionate state” which had encouraged women’s sexual and career independence to such an extent that a man could “no longer feel manly in his own home.”(34) The enormous anxiety felt by men of the older psychoclass about the sexual freedom of women cannot be overestimated. Earlier in the century, the average American woman rare-ly had orgasms and wanted sex only once or twice a month.(35) Today, women not only have sex much more often, but are so open about their ability to enjoy it that young women wear T-shirts saying “God, it feels good” . . . an attitude toward pleasure which cannot help but produce anxiety in the older psychoclass.
|The puritanical counterattack of the Reagan team against the sexual revolution is consonant with their sacrificial economic program of “feed the rich” and “punish the poor.” When Gilder was asked by an interviewer whether it wasn’t true that “the rewards of supply-side economics are given right now, to the wealthy” while “the penalties are imposed right now, on working-class, low-income, welfare citizens,” he replied, with a grin, “That’s life, folks.”(37) And when his fellow “supply-sider” Jude Wanniski called his Reaganomics team “the wild men” who fought against “the forces of darkness,”(38) it was the “dark force” of sexual pleasure as much as it was the pleasure of consumption which was being combated.The gratitude felt by most Americans toward the man whose task it was to bring the dark forces of our pleasures under control was overwhelming. Washington had never seen the likes of the $8 million Inaugural Celebration, supplemented by 40,000 guests attending “satellite balls” across the country. The New York Times Magazine ran a front cover instructing Reagan on his regal task, with the follow-ing headline: “MEMO: TO THE PRESIDENT. What this country wants and needs is not a board chairman or a passive||
The Reagan Revolution was seen as opposed to pleasure.(36)
President, but a strong one, even – yes, even – something approaching the old and besmirched Imperial Presidency.”(39) Those who wondered if all the ostentation of the ten-thousand dollar gowns and the $1,000-a-plate new dinnerware wasn’t perhaps an inappropriate way to begin the cutting of the budget for the poor didn’t really understand both halves of the principle of “feed the top and punish the bottom.” Reaganomics needed both the golden presidential plates and the welfare cuts to carry out its fantasy.
The overt adulation of the country toward Reagan personally knew no bounds during his first year. Time made him “Man of the Year.” The New York Times thought he was simply radiant: “Mr. Reagan is the first President in years who seems comfortable in the public eye, and he is radiating charm, decency-and competence.”(40) The New Republic agreed that he shined all over: “Reagan is direct, simple and sincere-candor shines out all over him.”(41) TV reporters saw him as a messiah who would reverse our disastrous past, as Jimmy Carter had promised but had failed to do: “After 20 years of pessimism, after assassinations, Vietnam and Watergate, at last, the burden was off our backs. It was America Reborn, a New America, America All the Way!”(42)
Reagan was seen as being in charge of the government guillotine.
|Swept up by the nation’s adulation, Reagan’s team could proceed with the sacrifice of the 150,000 people with dispatch. David Stockman found out “how much pain the new President was willing to impose” simply by listing program after program to be eliminated or drastically reduced, each with a little box for Reagan to check-something like the Roman system of sacrificing Christians in the Colosseum. The victims would ascend the sacrificial ladder each time a box was checked. One observer, present during the proceedings, told of the ease with which the sacrifice was carried out: “Reagan, this insider says, would look at the proposal, glance around the cabinet room table, and say, ‘Well, is there any disagreement on this one? No? OK, that’s done, let’s go on to the next page.”‘(43) Each stroke of the pen, like an ex-ecutioner’s ax, struck a blow against the symbols of our excesses. “Cut,” down go 3 million children removed from the school lunch program. “Slash,” down go 340,000 CETA jobs for unemployed workers. “Chop,” down go the handicapped children helped by government aid. It was as easy as cutting the 79 cent food allowance had been in Sacramento. In fact, it was even more im-portant for Reagan personally to cut the budget for children now. When he had become Governor, he had just been made a|
|THE SACRIFICIAL LADDER||65|
|millionaire, and he had sacrificed the needs of a few thousand children as symbols of his “greedy” desires. When he became President, he had deposed the former President (a father-figure), had himself taken over as the most powerful man in the world and now ate off thousand-dollar plates. Millions of children would now have to suffer for the hubris of his daring.Even stopping the nation’s money supply growth wasn’t difficult for Reagan, despite the supposed independence of the Federal Reserve Board. “It took only one visit at the end of April 1981, when President Reagan finally called Volcker to the White House and in no uncertain terms asked Volcker whether he intended to control the money of America. . . the Fed officials froze money growth for six months to October 1981, thus precipitating the current recession.” What’s more, adds the reporter, “The President should have pinned Voicker’s ears back long before April 1981. “(44)||
One after another the victims of Reaganomics ascended the sacrificial ladder.
That Reagan could perform his sacrificial role so effortlessly while still being thought of as “charming” and nice is more a testament to our desire to delegate to him the unpleasant sacrificial role than to any innate “charm” in his personality, which could be quite prickly when opposed. During the passage of the budget bill, House Speaker Tip O’Neill said of Reagan, “He’s cutting the heart out of the American dream to own a home and have a good job and still he’s popular.”(45) He might more accurately have phrased it “Because he’s cutting hearts out, he’s popular.” Given our euphoric idealization of Reagan in his sacrificial role, it was comparatively easy for him to implement his program. Despite The Washington Post’s quite accurate statement that “Reaganomics never was taken very seriously by the bulk of the economics profession,”(46) the public took it very seriously indeed.
As soon as the President’s program passed Congress, the stock market dropped. Despite Reagan’s magical scenario about the revitalization of America which would result from the sacrificial cleansing of the body politic, Wall Street knew precisely how bad the Time of Sacrifice would be. Despite $143 billion worth of tax reductions for business depreciation,(47) and despite slashes in corporate tax rates, they knew that profits were nevertheless going to drop sharply while Reagan pushed the
economy down to a utilization rate of below 70 percent which would be required to destroy some of the surplus of recent years. Although businessmen would not have to actually lose their lives as would the 150,000 human victims of Reaganomics, they would have to do without some of their profits for a while as their contribution to the Time of Sacrifice.
Nor did the Democratic party oppose the sacrificial slaughter. The few who noticed that the work of decades was being dismantled were reduced to impotence within the party. “It’s heartbreaking,” said one. “We
Both parties asked Reagan to chop off heads.
spent years putting those programs together, and they work. Now they are being destroyed.”(48) “People are watching programs they have put their hearts and sweat into being cut and abolished,” said another. “They’re walking around in shock.”(49) Democrats played key roles in passing every part of the Reagan program. As one Republican said, “Without them, we could not have won.”(50) Appropriately, they were labeled “Gypsy Moths” and “Boll Weevils,” devouring insects, symbols of the devouring, biting mouths of the Man Eater to whom their victims were being sacrificed. As one New York Times editorial put it, they “were victimized last week not so much by a Republican man-eater as by Democratic boll weevils.”(51) As in the world of the Kwakiutl, Reagan’s America seemed to be filled with biting mouths, “Republican man-eaters,” “Gypsy Moths,” “Boll Weevils,” and millions of hungry mouths in the Pac-Man games which swept the nation at that time.
The other symbol used regularly in these early months came right out of the pages of Reagan’s autobiography, Where’s The Rest of Me? Since Reagan’s main fear was of castration, of losing his legs, every slash of the budget ax gave him a chance to prove that he was able to do to others what he feared his father had wanted to do to him. Everyone around him
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joined him in the use of castration imagery during the budget-cutting process. Rep. O’Neill said his hope was that budget cuts for the needy would be modified so as to “cut them off at the knee instead of cutting them off at the hip. “52 An Education and Labor Committee aid said, when informed of the cuts, “It’s like being told to amputate your own leg.”(53) Reagan himself regularly used the phrase: “Vote against me, and you will cut me off at the knees.”(54) When Reagan finally signed the budget bill at his California ranch, a reporter asked him to hold his leg up in the air, ostensibly to see his new boots. The resulting photo of
Ronald Reagan displays his powerful phallus
after signing the sacrificial legislation.
Reagan, laughing, with his leg high in the air, was run in almost every newspaper and magazine in the nation. He did have a powerful phallus after all. He showed it to us. It was the victims of the bill he had just signed who were castrated, not Reagan. The sceneno from Where’s The Rest of Me? was so much on everyone’s mind during the signing ceremony that as the meeting broke up, after Reagan had displayed his leg, a reporter asked him what he was going to do next. He replied:
PRESIDENT: “Go out and cut the brush.”
REPORTER: “Well, don’t cut your leg off.”
MRS. REAGAN: “Where’s The Rest of Me?”
PRESIDENT: “You shouldn’t have mentioned it.”
The castrated had become the castrator. The child once sacrificed to his father’s rage had become the sacrificer. This time, America had chosen the leader it needed. After feeling “out of control” for so long, it felt good to be in control again.