What would Ralph Nader do with a $15-billion operating budget and a dedicated corps of sage billionaires onside to wage the good fight? In Nader's new book, "Only The Super-Rich Can Save Us!", we find out.
The "practical utopia" - don't call it a novel - begins in a cozy den in Omaha, Neb., with the protagonist, Warren Buffett, watching the horrors of Hurricane Katrina unfold on his TV. Seething with indignity at the sight of bodies left bobbing and rotting in swollen waters, Buffett sends himself and a convoy of relief supplies to the Ninth Ward. Struck by the ineptitude of the people in power, Buffett resolves to fix his broken country.
To this end, he convenes a carefully chosen group of 16 other elder billionaires and mega-millionaires - including George Soros, Bill Gates Sr., Paul Newman, Ted Turner, Barry Diller, Bill Cosby and Yoko Ono - to a high mountain resort on Maui. Their mission: Save America from its corrupt plutocracy and restore liberty for all by the end of the year.
And so it goes: Wal-Mart is unionized by Sol Price, the founder of Price Club. The Clean Elections Party wins 17 per cent of Congress. A common agenda of legislation, guaranteeing health care and living wages for all, is passed, and a raft of citizen groups with self-financing mechanisms, including the People's Chamber of Commerce, are set up.
The funny thing is, this is not as crazy as it sounds. U.S. culture respects power and wealth. The richest 450 billionaires in the world control more wealth than the poorest three billion people, and the rich have the means to affect massive change for the better, if strategically directed.
As for will, no legacy-minded billionaire should look forward to replaying the pathetic dynamic of social-regressive soft philanthropy described by John Steinbeck, whereby the rich spend the first three-quarters of their lives ripping the entrails out of society, then spend the last quarter clumsily trying to put them back in. As Buffett puts it in Maui, "Why rely on the smug foundation world, which has brought forth so few innovations while spending trillions of dollars. Why bequeath to unimaginative people?"
As someone who worked as press secretary to the author and was once asked to organize a major campaign address to a press conference of 500 dogs, I can attest that Ralph Nader certainly has an unencumbered sense of imagination that occasionally brushes up against the wacky. The book reflects this, with Sun God festivals that show the power of solar energy by cooking giant pots of tomato-and-eggplant stew, and a parrot named Patriotic Polly that pops up on TV enjoining Americans, "Get up. Don't let America down."
While the title of this book seems to suggest the antithesis of the citizen power movements with which most people identify Nader, it is a powerful idea by the perfect person at a fortuitous time. Nader, who was at the vortex of almost all of the progressive legislation (from the Clean Air Act to the Freedom of Information Act and seatbelts) of the late 1960s and '70s, is - in the words of President Barack Obama (a former Nader Raider himself) - a "singular figure in American history."
The Ralph Nader of the past few decades, however, has been swamped by the corporate backlash his reforms provoked, and after the Florida fiasco of the 2000 election, he received hundreds of death threats, including one by a media executive who said, "I want to kill Nader," to which Hillary Clinton, at her 2000 election party, replied, "That's not a bad idea."
Few Americans have experienced the same combination of high influence and all-out backlash as Nader. He may be a 75-year-old who still pounds his tomes out on an Underwood typewriter, but on a one-year journey for systemic justice, who would you rather have along to navigate the U.S. minefield of powerful vested interests, now humbling Obama's march to health-care reform?
This novel - er, "fictional vision that could become a reality" - is also intended as a response to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged . "I always hated Ayn Rand," Nader told me.
How does Nader's magna opus measure up against Rand's? Mercifully, at 730-plus pages, it's only half as long. Rand's sex scenes are definitely better than Nader's. The closest Nader comes to Harlequin is when Lancelot Lobo (the corporate raider hired by reactionary CEOs to stop Warren and his band of billionaires in their tracks) is overcome at the sight of Yoko Ono: "Her eyes. Her facial features. The way she held her dainty little hands, her confident posture ... his long repressed libido erupted into a series of escalating fantasies."
Both disdain looting, Rand by big government, Nader by big corporations. Rand glorifies rational selfishness; Nader holds up the exhilaration brought on by the selfless pursuit of justice. Rand's band of industrialists withdraws from society; Nader's engages it, putting themselves in the line of fire and loving it.
"Only The Super-Rich Can Save Us" provides better insight into Nader's psyche than any of the biographies published about him to date. Want to know the most important characteristic for a transformational leader? Moral courage. For a social-change foot soldier? Capacity to learn from criticism. Essential tactics to win citizen struggles? Build momentum from your epicentres and beyond using media. Use feints and distractions to keep opponents on their toes. Appeal to people's base senses and everyday realities. Anticipate reaction from entrenched powers, and always have second-strike capacity.
Unlike Rand's treatise, which sets forth a philosophy, Nader has responded with a vision and detailed blueprint for returning the United States to the ideals set forth by its founding fathers.
In real life, inveterate social entrepreneur Nader has also been reaching out to some of the mega-rich depicted in his book. With a few exceptions, including Ross Perot, who was a little prickly about the book's notion, many of them have responded positively, including Yoko Ono, Ted Turner, Warren Beatty and the book's main protagonist, the Oracle of Omaha.
Just as I was finishing this review, I Googled Warren Buffett and found two news reports from the past two weeks: 1. A coalition of U.S. companies, investors and directors co-chaired by Warren Buffett has proposed a radical overhaul of executive pay. 2. Buffett may be an investor in the Cronkite Channel, an education-focused news site that would uphold the values of the broadcast legend.
Both of these events are foretold in Nader's novel - or, as he would prefer, his 735-page practical utopia. Stay tuned.
Toby Heaps is editor of Corporate Knights magazine, and in 2008 served as Ralph Nader's press secretary.