Friday, August 10, 2012

Antony C. Sutton's America's Secret Establishment

Antony C. Sutton's America's Secret Establishment: An Introduction to the Order of Skull & Bones. Waterville, Oregon: Trineday LLC, 1983, 1986, 2002.

How many books go into third editions?  This one, which Kris Millegan reprinted in 2002, is worth reading.  I attended a libertarian-oriented cocktail party in Manhattan this summer, and one of the attendees, a respected educator who, as a young man, met Ayn Rand and, as a grown-up, helped the Soviet Union transition to a freer economy, recommended Sutton's book to me.

I don't, as a rule, believe in conspiracy theories.   Apparent conspiracies arise from subjective paranoia,  prejudice, or mischaracterization of a pattern as a conspiracy.  This may not detract from the theory's value because insights about a pattern can be useful even if the pattern does not bear the C-word's weight.  For instance, James Perloff's Shadows of Power, which does not claim that the Council on Foreign Relations is a conspiracy (it is not), presents a useful narrative. In the case of America's Secret Establishment, Sutton, a respected historian who spent years with the Hoover Institution, claims that Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society, is one.

While Sutton shows that it does qualify, the broad trends that Sutton describes aren't attributable solely or even mostly to it;  he overstates its importance.  Nevertheless, Sutton's work is useful not only as a discussion of an idiosyncratic, secret, elite group that seems to have furthered the financial aims, sometimes illegal, of a subset of its members, but also, and more importantly, as a discussion of how America's elite became enamored of statism, has manipulated public opinion by creating the illusion of a two-party system with a fake liberal-conservative dichotomy, and has established a crony capitalist system based on economic regulation and control facilitated by the fake dichotomy.    Sutton's book, written in 1983, is prophetic as the American state becomes increasingly corrupt, dysfunctional, and totalitarian.

When Sutton wrote the first edition, George H.W. Bush was vice president. Since then, Bush and his son, both Skull and Bonesmen, have been presidents--to ill effect.  Written before the first Bush presidency, the book shows that Bush's use of the phrase "new world order" comes directly from Skull and Bones's history.

Many of the names in Sutton's narrative have aged, but they have been pivotal in the creation of the 21st century's deteriorating America. These include McGeorge Bundy, W. Averell Harriman,William F. Buckley, and Daniel Coit Gilman. It is not clear, though, that the old-line WASPs whose ancestors arrived here in the 1630s have the same panache that they had even twenty years ago.  Today, people like the Waltons, the Kochs, Buffett, Soros, and Bloomberg dominate the upper echelons of the Forbes 400; not all of them are as vulnerable to the kinds of manipulations that Sutton describes by which Skull and Bones insiders got control of key foundations and furthered the aims of progressive education via non-Skull-and-Bonesmen like John Dewey.

Moreover, the Order of Skull and Bones, to which Sutton refers simply as "the Order," seems to have increased its diversity by the 1980s, although names like Taft (including the Order's founder, Alphonso Taft, Grant's Secretary of War, and his descendent, William H. Taft,  president and US Supreme Court chief justice) continue to appear.  This presents a problem for Sutton's model because he asserts that the old, monied names that have dominated American foundations and the formation of its educational system view even the Rockefellers as upstarts.  If so, then what is the deeper meaning of an Order that has not only included six Bushes over a century, but in recent years also has included names like Shapiro, Nguyen, Moscoso, Meyer, Gottheim, Grossman, Ruiz, Jimenez, Mehta, and Sarnelli, according to Sutton's list of the Order's members at the end of the book?

What is valuable about the book is Sutton's philosophical probing of the Hegelian model behind progressive education, the support foundations have given to various soft totalitarian causes, and American support, via Order-related banks like Guaranty Trust and Harriman Brothers, for the nation's putative opposition--the Nazi and the communist movements, both of which received essential funding from the Order-related banks.

The concepts of  Hegelian state worship and managed conflict that Sutton explores and says have been characteristic of the Order also have been characteristic of the entire Progressive movement, including not only the Order but also a large swath of Americans including Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson--as he transitioned into support for Progressivism. Progressives came from the University of Wisconsin, and virtually every other university, as well as Yale.

Sutton is wrong that Kant and Hegel are closely linked, especially with respect to state worship.  Kant's categorical imperative is liberal; it requires that humans be treated as ends in themselves. However, Kant in some ways represents a transition to statism, as does utilitarianism from Bentham on.  Von Mises is wrong that utilitarianism is necessarily individualist.  The 18th and 19th century versions mostly were, but in Mill there is a transition to a more socialistic utilitarianism which we also saw in recent years in the Chicago School's and Judge Posner's support for bailouts of incompetently run investment companies.

Intellectual histories of 19th and 20th century America, studies of the histories of American universities, and studies of the transformation of the American economy show that there was a widespread transition from individualism to Progressivism and collectivism  in the 1890s and that part of the reason was that Americans like Richard T. Ely were educated in Germany, where collectivist ideas, including Hegel and the related German historical school of economics, were taught.  It is not surprising, then, that the elite of the elite, Yale's handpicked members of the Order, have also advocated Hegelian, Progressive,  and soft totalitarian ideas.  In the case of Ely, Sutton neglects to mention that marginalist economists like John Bates Clark wrested control of the American Economics Association from Ely.  In the end, this point may not have mattered much because marginalism is consistent with conservative versions of Progressivism.

Sutton's book is valuable because it traces in incredible detail one sub-group within the Progressive movement, the Order's, criminal financing of both Bolsheviks and Nazis and because Sutton gives a valuable philosophical interpretation.  Progressivism and the Order adopted a Hegelian dialectical approach to political strategy whereby they support both sides (both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, communists and Nazis) in order to achieve a totalitarian synthesis that neither side, both of which are manipulated, anticipates.

The book is extraordinarily useful in showing that the claims of Progressivism about helping the poor and being democratic were always lies; from the beginning Progressivism had totalitarian aims.  Today's America is increasingly reflecting those aims.  As a recent Rasmussen poll showed, only 14% of Americans believe that their descendents' futures will be better than theirs.  Might they consider that they are responsible for voting the likes of Kennedy (McGeorge Bundy,  Harriman), Harriman, Roosevelt, and Obama into office--and that the decisions that the American Establishment has made, and for whom the average voter pulls a lever each election day, are the reasons  that things are going down hill?