America: the land of endlessness. Endless landscapes. Endless opportunities. Endless diversions from the uncomfortable but mercifully occasional glimpses of our social and economic reality.
I submit to you, dear reader, a few of these discomfiting glimmers, particularly concerning the continued maintenance of America’s stratified class structure. I make no claim to originality of content, only format. May they stir something of mercy in your soul, and may you be given the strength to re-cognize your own abilities in effecting alternatives, in ways big and small.
This post was in part written to this album – perhaps you’ll enjoy it while digesting: Waking Season, Caspian
And this track was also somewhat instrumental (ha!) to the production of this piece: Asa, Caspian
In a well-functioning neo-liberal economic system such as what we have in the US, there must exist a measure of unemployment. Those who are, even temporarily, unemployed and hence have no income are generally known to be pretty crappy consumers, all things considered. Bad for business, right? At the micro level, yes, but in the absence of a surplus of those workers who are willing/wishing to work but have no jobs, bossman loses a very valuable whip to crack when it comes to maximizing the efficiency in squeezing every last drop from existing workers – much, much worse for business than having a small percentage of poor folks classed out of consuming yet waiting ever-ready in the wings to scab over a union sore (or better yet, prevent one from ever occurring by their mere existence). Case in point: any time the IMF or the WTO wish to set up shop in some indebted banana republic with loans, part of the structural adjustment is always to remove any existing government polices aimed toward full employment. And in order to be effective, it need not even be that a significant fraction of people are without any jobs – they could be under-employed and the whip still functions. Perhaps in an even more seamlessly beautiful way, because part-timers are still contributing and consuming, but nobody has to pick up the tab for benefits; witness almost anyone working at WalMart. And they feel lucky just to have some work, so are that much less likely to squawk when squeezed further. Better still if you can get them to work two (hell, three! This is the land of opportunity, after all) part-time positions. Less time to feel sorry for themselves that way, and more need to spend on products with cost-added time convenience. Besides, for those without any jobs, and no real opportunities for pursuing one, the government and churches and the legion of social workers they each employ were always gonna pick up the tab anyway, because otherwise, Bastille Day would become a thing again.
Noam Chomsky, forever prescient:
As for the rest, we set them adrift. We don’t really care about them. We don’t really need them. They have to be around to provide a powerful state, which will protect us and bail us out when we get into trouble, but other than that they essentially have no function. These days they’re sometimes called the “precariat” — people who live a precarious existence at the periphery of society. Only it’s not the periphery anymore. It’s becoming a very substantial part of society in the United States and indeed elsewhere. And this is considered a good thing.
It’s been said that religion is what keeps poor folks from killing rich folks. Hold on there, Lao Tzu. What keeps the poor people from killing the rich is mostly the police and security guards of the strong state that Chomsky mentions. And fences. And in really close calls, the national guard. Interesting to note the class backgrounds of these folks themselves: is the guy installing the security system or building the fence ever the one who’d truly have need of one himself?
Chomsky goes on:
So, for example, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, at the time when he was still “Saint Alan” — hailed by the economics profession as one of the greatest economists of all time (this was before the crash for which he was substantially responsible) — was testifying to Congress in the Clinton years, and he explained the wonders of the great economy that he was supervising. He said a lot of its success was based substantially on what he called “growing worker insecurity.” If working people are insecure, if they’re part of the precariat, living precarious existences, they’re not going to make demands, they’re not going to try to get better wages, they won’t get improved benefits. We can kick ’em out, if we don’t need ’em. And that’s what’s called a “healthy” economy, technically speaking. And he was highly praised for this, greatly admired.
What’s it cost a business to ignore poor people? The loss of their business? Or for that matter, what’re the costs to screenwriters? Admen? Politicians? The working (and non-working, for that matter) poor will only be paid enough political mind, either through the barest necessities of real improvement in or maintenance of their living standards, or through lavish media attention (which is usually cheaper but sometimes just won’t do to scrub out that really stubborn proletariat rage stuck to the bottom of the melting pot), to stave off violent insurrection. Hence Obamacare. And if not the carrot, there’s always the option of stickin’ them in the state pen for the various crimes of Being Poor and/or Being Black. You know, that whole three strikes and you’re out business, because if there’re two things America loves, they are baseball and putting people in prison. Hell, sometimes even prisoners get to play baseball. Everybody wins!
Here’s a bit from chapter 32 of Kurt Vonnegut’s darkly incisive satire Hocus Pocus (1991):
[Context: the well-to-do board of trustees of a private college in upstate New York have just been taken hostage by escaped convicts from a state prison across the lake]
“What [he] had said about people like [the trustees] was accurate. They had managed to convert their wealth, which had originally been in the form of factories or stores or other demanding enterprises, into a form so liquid and abstract, negotiable representations of money on paper, that there were few reminders coming from anywhere that they might be responsible for anyone outside their own circle of friends and relatives.
Here’s a textbook exemplar of that tone-deafness to which Vonnegut alludes: Citigroup released what was intended to be an industry-internal memo in 2005 concerning the best strategies for investment in plutocratic states (US, UK, Canada, etc – all the ones you’d expect). Through the wonders of the internet, it can now be accessed and groaned over by all here. It was somewhat of a scandal when it went public (though quickly hushed through aggressive threats of legal action by Citi’s hounds), but it seems as if we might’ve somehow missed the mark when the only scandal of the whole thing was that the financial sector was just telling it like it is. Unfortunately, this blindness to the actual, societal costs of wealth accumulation is nothing new; social prophets have been calling us out since the way back of beyond our time. As St. Basil the Great had it in the 4th century AD, in a lament to the political and economic power holders in his day and age, of whom we are the inheritors:
“How can I make you realize the misery of the poor? How can I make you understand that your wealth comes from their weeping?”
A worthy question, indeed. One we ought to ask of ourselves and those we love.
The scene from Hocus Pocus continues:
They didn’t rage against the convicts. They were mad at the Government for not making sure that escapes from prison were impossible. The more they ran on like that, the clearer it became that it was their Government, not mine or the convicts’ or the townies’. Its first duty, moreover, was to protect them from the lower classes, not only in this country, but everywhere.
Were people on Easy Street ever any different? Think again about the crucifixions of Jesus and the 2 thieves…
Interesting to note that the Citigroup memo mentions the rule of law, particularly that of capitalist-friendly governments like ours, (Citizens United, anyone?) as a condition of functioning plutonomies. The bottom end of the working class function as the arm of enacted repression, be it through the military, the police, or the prisons – at times now indistinguishable from one another. These forces are almost always predominantly staffed by those without much economic opportunity otherwise, so in expanding their ranks, more positions are created for those who might’ve been the ones being otherwise policed. Shrinking welfare programs putting folks in the poorhouse? Oh, SNAP! Let’s quell the desperation by offering those would-be welfare folks the fine opportunity to fight for good old American Values, here and abroad. It’s like we planned it that way all along: the perverse upshot of militarization is the opening of more jobs to the working poor. That said, I’m not sure your average 3-tour vet or brown person in the land between Asia, Africa and Europe would count that a blessing, and the 22 veterans who take their own lives daily speak volumes otherwise.
Here’s something worth a mournful chuckle: Mitt Romney on the 2012 campaign trail, touring a steel plant in some economically burned-over district in the soon-to-be postindustrial heartland. I imagine that he says, “Yes, I’ve heard they build things from this. Good work, gentlemen.” While he thinks, “I should be going now, before I make of myself an even bigger tool in front of you, the electorate for whom I just can’t quite hide my resentment.” The paradox of modern American electoral politics: can’t afford to ignore the everyman in the election; can’t afford to get elected if you are the everyman. Joe Six-pack didn’t stand a chance at anything besides a La-Z-Boy and an aging ranch house in the inner ‘burbs, you think he’s got a seat waiting for him in the Senate? I don’t recall the specific figure on the proportion of millionaires in the Congress, but it’s disgusting when you think that they’re asked to represent a populace with a median annual income somewhere near $30k. Here’s a wonderful way to obscure this truth: average income is now rising. Joy! People must be doing better economically, the recession has lifted!
Oh, wait, median income is actually falling. Now which story makes it onto the Wall Street Journal’s front page? … and the fifth estate struggles on to be heard above the droning of the Hope and Change we all so desperately wanted to be anything other than what was.
More from Vonnegut:
I think any form of government, not just Capitalism, is whatever the people who have all our money, drunk or sober, sane or insane, decide to do today.
Unfortunately, that calculus of what to do today cannot help but to exclude consideration for the realities of those who are disenfranchised in every sense of the word. And for those who really can’t be convinced that the Good Things in Life are trickling down all over them in a golden shower, there exists a handy demographic to convince them otherwise, or at least help them scrounge some crumbs. Ah, social workers. There is a notable predilection among the mostly white, mostly well-off middle class young to go into social work and related social service fields. Why, you say? Surely it could be something so simple and innocent as a noble vestige of our moral roots and solid two-parent family upbringings? Or maybe even just a function of individual compassion spread across a demographic that has the means and encouragement to pursue education in such fields?
Or, perhaps more perversely, could it be a product of the guilt felt when the scions of suburbia come into contact with the truly disenfranchised now that they’ve made the move to the city for that killer graphic-design job? It may well be these things alone or in combination, especially in the case of any given individual. I certainly don’t mean to discredit the deeply heartfelt and merciful work performed by social workers of then and now (trust me on this, I am one), but it is necessary to acknowledge the systemic class-maintenance function their work serves. At the macro scale, these peacekeepers of the middle class function as a necessary and rather compliant buffer shield between the haves-most and the will-never-haves. And the good white folk formerly of middle-America and now of the East End are happy to continue serving the poor, just so long as they can leave them at work when shift ends. Thus the upper crust remains unsullied by the consequences of their own enrichment as the devoted middlemen (actually mostly women) daily redirect the bullets of poverty’s discontent. A useful mechanism if ever there were one.
And much like the macro function of social workers set against the level of the individual’s motivations, financial mechanisms that read counter intuitively at one scale but function brilliantly at a larger one are what will find their way into existence eventually. As I’ve already argued here, scaling-up is the logical thing to do in our system, economically speaking. The Citigroup memo mentions ever-expanding foreign conquests and a handy supply of vulnerably willing immigrants as some of the driving conditions of neo-lib plutonomies. In this case, I’m not sure the golden bull has an end game figured out quite yet; where do we go when the global economic amoeba is so large there’re no more bits left to engulf? We’re still working on making America and increasingly the world a classless middle-class society with an invisible upper crust and an equally invisible but highly productive soggy bottom crust.
Believe you me, if someone ever gets around to inventing invisible-paint, public housing towers will be among the first things painted. And probably prisons, too, if they weren’t so far out in the countryside as to be all but invisible already. Because hey, Jesus said it: the poor will always be with us, so let’s forget about them for awhile and spread the oil around for now. In the meantime, the rest of us feel stuck watching, waiting, wanting for the dream to be made manifest. Contemporary American media can’t help but issue forth high praise for this wonderful dream available to a shrinking few while simultaneously telling the great mass of dreamers to shut up already and settle for 29 hours a week. The not so subtly concealed subtext of the ‘personal responsibility’ narrative so in vogue in many class-based politico-economic theories: “Chop, chop! Our houses need built and cleaned, our limos need driven and fixed, and our food needs picked, shipped, and cooked. Alright, fine; when you’re done, you can watch Monday Night Football, just so long as you promise not to Occupy anything but your couch.”
A natural tendency in folks who’ve some disposable income serves as a wonderful tool for those who would politically subjugate them through the magic of the marketplace. People seem to prefer consuming to producing, but they love to feel like they’ve produced while consuming. For example: I buy some sod. And a lawn mower. And some weed ‘n’ feed. And some garden hoses. All straight-up consumption. But I have thus produced a well-manicured lawn with the sweat of my brow, and am that much closer to living The Dream. And then perhaps I take a moment to enjoy my lawn, while thinking that I really ought to hire the brown folks the neighbors use because this sure is a lot of real work and wouldn’t you know it, nothing in my career has prepared me for real work. On balance, I have done almost nothing but consume products which I had no hand in producing and a most peripheral role in procuring (the drive to Home Depot counts for something, right?). The end result, an outcome that was all but inevitable given the inputs, somehow magically makes me feel as if I made it to happen. To make a short story shorter, the real money is probably in figuring out ways to market the products of the consumption process itself rather than those products lower down the food chain of utility (which, as I’ve argued here, is already being done with most work that goes on in modern cities). Chomsky notes this change also, locating it sometime in the 1970s: [There] came a significant shift of the economy from productive enterprise – producing things people need or could use – to financial manipulation. And while we’re at it, there’s surely some macro-level money to be made in finding ways to keep hidden the ungodly awful jobs done by the working poor and the unholy extravagance of the really wealthy, because the unveiled reality of how our market economy functions in practice is indeed an ugly one.
Philosophically, America is and always has been very comfortable with the idea of the self-made man (and now, -woman. Thanks, Sheryl Sandberg!) The inverse is just as deeply ingrained: the un-made state of dependency is the lot of the diseased, the disabled, the deficient. To not possess the ability to provide for oneself is to be somehow less than a fully franchised adult in America. And yet, we also aren’t comfortable with the idea of great wealth (Citigroup deigns to base their financial advising on a factual assessment of reality? Horror! That unseats the entire narrative of this Great American Egalitarian Project in Democracy). Well, at least not great wealth employed in the enrichment of self, or great wealth through an unworthy inheritance. Bill Gates? No, it’s cool man, he can have his mansions because he did that thing with malaria. Warren Buffett? Sure, he’s alright, he’s used his gilded podium to say some heady stuff (including comments about the injustice of entrenched class divisions in the US… yet I’m sure he’s able to set aside his fretting about the economic victimization of those in poverty and sleep soundly each night under his collection of sparrow-feather duvets). But Trump? That guy’s an ass. Why? Not because of anything he’s said. It’s probably because he’s spent his money and behaved like we are ashamed to admit we might if we had it like he does. That said, he does serve the useful scapegoat-y function of being someone of whom we can always say, “At least I’m not a rich asshole like that dude.” For those who’ve ‘made it’ enough to be bothered by the poverty they see but not enough to really do something about it, it sure is nice to have a psychic-tension outlet like Trump and his ilk. “Ah, yes, what I’ve done to get where I am may make me party to injustice, but at least I’m no rich douche like they are.” They’re basically moral yardsticks, and every time we hear something of them we can sigh with the relief that at least our small bit of wealth isn’t so shameful as theirs. The ludicrously rich and recursively famous face the unique dichotomy of being elevated to sainthood or sunken into sin, perhaps as a result of their uni-dimensional portrayals in media, but they do serve a systemic function, whether they may’ve chosen to or not. Moral of any media story about someone fabulously wealthy: they are worthy of their great riches by virtue of their philanthropic benevolence (though I’d wager that your average circuit board assembling Bangladeshi would have other thoughts concerning Mr. Gates’ intrinsic goodness), or they are so egregiously abusive of their unearned wealth that we just can’t get enough of their unholy antics (the sad irony being their often further enrichment through this perverse fascination we just can’t let go).
The takeaway is never about challenging the dubious rightness of lording great wealth in itself, but rather an assignation of personal worthiness for said wealth. As long as this remains the thrust of our interest, we will remain forever diverted from the conversation about money that actually matters.
I’ll end with another bit from Hocus Pocus, where his protagonist tells the reader of a history professor he once knew:
He predicted… that human slavery would come back, that it had in fact never gone away. He said that so many people wanted to come here because it was so easy to rob the poor people, who got absolutely no protection from the government. He talked about bridges falling down and water mains breaking because of no maintenance. He talked about oil spills and radioactive waste and poisoned aquifers and looted banks and liquidated corporations. “And nobody ever gets punished for anything,” he said. “Being an American means never having to say you’re sorry.”
If we live in a world where being an American means never having to apologize for our sins, economic and otherwise, then I am truly sorry.