[Editor’s note: At the top of this post is the shorter version of Gordie Fellman’s letter to the 99 percent, and the longer version is below. Please see the previous posts for Gordie’s introduction to this letter and his letter to the 1 percent.]
The opposition of the seeming interests of the 1% against those of the 99% makes both sides angry and edgy. A gigantic shift from domination and exploitation to sharing and prosperity for all is possible, but first it is necessary to understand how we got here.
You are increasingly angry about jobs going overseas, CEOs raking in tens of millions of dollars a year in salaries and bonuses, huge tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, gigantic corporations often paying little or NO taxes to the US government, ever growing income inequality, deterioration in public services, inadequate minimum wages, outrageous student debts to banks, and the ever shrinking middle class. How can the 1% handle that anger that properly would be directed at them for their central role in sustaining these conditions?
It’s easy, and it’s in three parts. First, their strategy is to distract you from the unfairness and exploitation that fall out from the 1%/99% divide. It isn’t immigrants who are responsible for your problems, and it isn’t Muslims or Mexicans, or women or African Americans or Latinos or Jews or gay, bi, and trans people either. Blaming and hating any or all of these groups does not threaten the wealth and power of the 1% to buy politicians and elections. They don’t care who you hate as long as you assume the permanence and legitimacy of the 1%’s control.
Second, the 1% distracts by disempowerment. It promotes journalism, entertainment, and political shenanigans that overwhelm the 99% with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
Third, the 1% distract you by putting an enormous amount of time, money, and media coverage into political party contests where both parties assume the permanence of the 1%/99% divide and strive to keep the 1% happy and in power. The only changes either party makes are minor and never touch the root realities of wealth and power that underlie and determine the fates of the 99%. One party does this by shifting as much wealth up to the 1% as possible and taking it from the funds that somewhat meet the needs of people in the 99%. This party remains primarily the representative of white men in power and whites with no power, but who identify with those who have it. This party stokes hatred, resentment, and fear as ways of galvanizing support.
The other party sees wisdom in meeting more needs of the 99% and celebrates diversity. Still,, this party also assumes it has to placate the 1%. It will return to supporting the rights of labor, if at all, by being pushed hard from the grassroots below. The other party will never honor labor.
There is one final form of distraction to keep you from focusing on the real sources of your discontent: urging you to obsess about where you are in the 99% and whether you can climb higher. This strategy urges people to go for broke in improving their own lives (the American Dream) with no regard for the continuing conditions that make this impossible for an increasing proportion of the 99%.
Members of the 1%, aspire very high. They learn early on that they are meant to own and control the wealth and institutions of our society.
Members of the upper middle class are also taught to aspire high, not to positions of ultimate power and ownership but to attractive places in institutions that the top 1% own and control. On behalf of their values and social class interests, you organize and run hospitals, symphony orchestras, law offices, colleges and universities, engineering firms, museums, school systems, state and local governments, large businesses, insurance companies, pharmaceutical houses, media, high tech companies, agri‐businesses, and of course more.
Here is a trick a social class system has to master in order to keep inequalities intact. Youth in the lower middle, working, and lower classes are taught to aspire low. No kid grows up saying I want to stock shelves at low wages in a Walmart, fry hamburgers at a fast food place, or re-asphalt crumbing streets. So how are people taught to aspire low? That’s easy. Put them in underfunded schools with underpaid teachers who are taught to have low expectations of their students. Make school so tedious that kids will give up expecting stimulation, enlightenment, education. Reward and praise these kids seldom, and punish them for minor transgressions. Insist implicitly that they accept dead‐end lives and boredom. Tacitly push them toward drugs, TV addiction, and drinking. Make it clear that aspiring beyond “their station” will get them nowhere.
Those who control the class system have to do that. There is no other way to limit competition for the lucrative positions and lives at or near the top. Otherwise, who will sweep school floors and staff megastores that pay as poorly as possible?
The idea that life is about status, appearances, and consuming ever more is pushed like a drug upon you from many sources. Education tells you “the higher the degree, the greater the income.” The media suffocates you with ads from which there is no escape. Business says that for the economy to thrive, you have to buy ever more and do so thoughtlessly. Government lets multi‐national corporations do whatever they want to make even more profits, even if this means destroying environments, degrading human life, paying starvation wages or less, forcing poor countries to sell resources at prices set by the corporations, messing with the cultures and social structures of those countries, and forcing poor countries to buy products made by multi‐national corporations whose loyalties lie with no country, but with the global 1%, period.
Even sacred institutions support wealth and power inequalities. Most religions tell you to immerse yourself in ritual and prayer, but don’t try to change social conditions you find intolerable. If you’re in the military, you take orders that will result in others being killed and possibly you, too. You may not question authority that seems reckless, foolish, and fatally destructive All of this would have you believe that wealth and power inequalities are normal and inevitable. They are neither.
Although there is no evidence that wealth and power make them more relaxed, more fulfilled, happier, or sexually satisfied than people in the 99%, the 1%’ers seem driven by forces larger than themselves to gain still more wealth and power no matter what. They want you not even to consider that there may be ways of organizing society that work for the benefit of everyone instead of pitting the 1% and the 99% against each other.
Ironically, Trump has simply made more explicit and grotesque the structural violence that has lurked all along in the social class system. Whether intentionally or not, he has surfaced and highlighted the usually somewhat coded racism, nativism, sexism, heterosexism, and American arrogance toward the rest of the world that have characterized the Republican Party at least since Richard Nixon’s presidency. Trump draws out the anger underlying all that like a physician bringing pus in a sore to the surface to get rid of it. But
Trump has no intention of purging you of the pus, which is actually his and his followers’ anger. He makes them drink the pus the way petty cult tyrant Jim Jones made his followers drink poison Kool Aid. Very dangerously, like a true tyrant, Trump exploits the anger he elicits. Anger begets more anger and frequently winds up killing people. Followers become so enraged they don’t know how to handle it, except by yelling, screaming, and hurting anyone they can. Eventually this usually destroys enraged people themselves.
Republicans know they cannot get votes on reason. Who really cares about “small government,” which Republicans tout endlessly? The issue is not its size but what government does for citizens. When government brings social security, health care, education, housing, water, police and fire protection services to its population, Republicans prefer not to pay for that from taxes. They they want to tax the 99% instead, or better yet, dissolve the programs beneficial to the 99%.
In his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank asked why Kansans sometimes vote against their economic interests. His bafflement belies his assumption that people’s “real” interests are the objective ones of working conditions, income, and life style. This is simply not true. In addition to objective interests, people, have subjective interests. We live in our guts at least as much as in our heads, and it is to our guts that politicians can appeal ethically or opportunistically.
Until now, people have found their primary meaning in identifying with religions, nationalities, nation‐states, and political and economic systems opposed to other religions, nationalities, nation‐states and political and economic systems. We as a species are on the threshold of creating a new human identity that can combine and celebrate all the others: the identity of citizen of planet Earth. I see my most fundamental identity as a member of a species that needs from now on to work together to transform our ways of relating to each other. We must move away from paranoia, fear, and hate, and work together toward acceptance, understanding, and love. If we do this, we will infinitely enhance our own lives, and at the same time, we will save and improve our planet Earth.
[Editor’s note: the longer version of the letter to the 99 percent is below.]
THE POLITICS AND SOCIOLOGY OF DISTRACTION: KEEPING EYES OFF THE PRIZE OF FUNDAMENTAL LIBERATING CHANGES
Three big distractions
The 99% are increasingly angry about jobs going overseas, CEO’s raking in tens of millions of dollars a year in salaries and bonuses, huge tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, gigantic corporations often paying little or NO taxes to the US government, ever growing income inequality, deterioration in public services, inadequate minimum wages, outrageous student debts to banks, and the ever-shrinking middle class. How can the 1% handle that anger that properly would be directed at them for their central role in sustaining these conditions?
It’s easy, and it’s in three parts. First, their strategy is to distract you from paying attention to the role of the 1% in causing and maintaining the unfairness and unfreedom that are fallout of the 1%/99% divide. It isn’t immigrants who are responsible for problems that beset you, and it isn’t Muslims or Mexicans, or women or African Americans or Latinos or Jews or gay, bi, and trans people either. Blaming and hating any or all of these groups delights countless people in the 1% as none of that threatens their wealth and their power to buy politicians and elections and play a disproportionate role in enacting legislation. They don’t care who you hate as long as you assume the permanence and legitimacy of their control.
Second, the 1% distracts by disempowerment. It promotes journalism, entertainment, political thinkers, political party shenanigans, and political practices which have the effect of overwhelming the 99% with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness and driving home the idea that in fact the 99% can’t do anything to ameliorate their economic condition and their feelings of defeat at the hands of a gigantic impersonal system.
Third, the 1% distract people by putting an enormous amount of time, money, and media coverage into political party contests where both parties assume the permanence of the 1%/99% divide and strive to keep the 1% happy and in power. The only changes either party makes are minor and never touch the root realities of wealth and power that underlie and determine the fates of the 99%. One party does this to the extent it can by shifting as much wealth up to the 1% as possible and taking it from the funds that at least somewhat meet the needs of people in the 99%. This party remains primarily the representative of white men in power and whites with no power but who identify with those who have it. This party stokes hatred, resentment, and fear as ways of galvanizing support .
The other party sees wisdom in meeting more of the needs of the 99% and represents ethnic, gender, religious, and sexualities inclusiveness but differs not from the first in assuming it has to placate the 1% and not work toward a system that meets everyone’s needs for survival and dignity. It will return to supporting the rights of labor if at all by being pushed hard from the grassroots below.
The fourth big distraction
There is one final form of distraction by which the 1% and the politicians who work on their behalf keep you from focusing on the real sources of your discontent: urging you through all means possible to obsess about where you are in the 99% and whether you can somehow climb higher. This strategy urges people to go for broke in improving their own lives (the American Dream) with no regard for the continuing conditions that make this impossible or nearly so for an increasing proportion of those in the 99%.
The 1% are the top elites (it’s actually the top one hundredth of 1% we are talking about, who own over half of humanity’s wealth and control much of what goes on in the world), but it’s clumsy to say one one hundredth and the point is more elegantly put across simply as the one per cent). As the 1% are defined by wealth and power, you in the 99% are defined by lack of that. But of course you do not all lack equally. You run a gamut from people who are very well off and comfortable but control little or nothing beyond their own work and immediate life spaces to unemployed people with no home, no place to shower, not enough food, and very dim prospects for changing any of this.
Let’s examine these social classes and then consider how focusing on status and mobility—moving upward in the system of wealth and consuming—is somewhat beside the point. The question of course is, What point? What is the point? We’ll pick up on that later.
THE 99% IS NOT HOMOGENEOUS
Here is a way to look at four different parts of the 99%:
THE LOWER CLASS
You with nothing or close to it can also be called the poor and powerless class. Some of you scrape by as best you can on tiny social security checks, if you have them, or on bills and coins solicited from strangers, or on the largesse of relatives or friends who may offer a little money, a couch, an occasional meal. Some live in run-down trailers and eat cat food because it is cheaper than people food.
Some of you are so depressed by your objective condition that you turn to alcohol or drugs or nicotine to dull the pain and offer brief escapes from it. Some spend days in public libraries and nights in homeless shelters. Some scavenge from dumpsters behind super markets which throw away tons of food each day. Or behind restaurants, whose leavings can also be tapped for something to eat.
Some of you look for whatever work you can get, for whatever period of time it is available and settle for low pay and no benefits. Some of you find medical care in emergency rooms of hospitals or in store front clinics set up to serve your health needs. Some of you sleep in subway stations or over heating grates or in lobbies and vestibules in apartment buildings. Some manage to be given food by restaurant patrons who prefer giving you nourishment to giving you money.
Some of you are thrown out by families because of your sexual orientation or lack of employment, or addictions to one thing or another, or low energy, or emotional problems you don’t know where to take. Some of you were doing fine until economic forces beyond your control pushed you out of the work force with no alternative options. Some had it all and lost it all. Some are stereotyped as “losers” scorned and ignored.
Many years ago, I used to pass a man about my age who stood each day a few feet from the entrance to the modest apartment building where I lived. He was dressed elegantly: nice suit, dress shirt, tie. Fashionable overcoat. When I passed him, he was always looking down at the sidewalk. With his hand stretched out in my direction, he mumbled, “Spare change?” I wanted for months to ask him his story. There, I thought, but for events not under my control or his, could be me. But I did not ask. I felt like a coward about that and still do.
I’ve had students who have struck up conversations with such people on the streets and have learned their stories while also finding the relief of the story teller to be heard by a passerby who seems to care. Lower class people are often shunted out of sight by city authorities, knocked around, not provided with even a place to take a hot shower. Some sleep in shelters, some eat at places provided for them, often in church basements.
Local governments and citizens tend to stereotype the poor and often demonize them. Decades ago, when Massachusetts, where I live, decided to deinstitutionalize very disturbed people (i.e. kick them from hospitals onto the streets), those I noticed seemed to do as best they could to get by. Scenes I routinely witnessed were typically heartbreaking. What is to be said about a society that throws away a third to a half of its food, permits the 1% wealth beyond imagining, and deprives some of the 99% of the dignity of food, clothing, and shelter? There is nothing natural about poverty. It’s a social construction and somewhere deep inside I suspect we all know that.
THE UPPER MIDDLE CLASS
The group whose incomes might range from around $100,000 a year to half a million is made up of engineers, doctors, dentists, lawyers, and academic and also business people with gross annual incomes in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars. You are the professional and medium business class; you can also be called the upper middle class. You live alone or with families in comfortable homes or condos or apartments. You send your children to schools you have reason to believe are exceptionally good. You pay attention to aesthetics in your furnishings and in your clothing, jewelry, and cosmetics. You buy food partly according to how healthy it is. You enjoy eating out at “good” restaurants. You enjoy being able to afford electronic devices of all sorts and appliances you know are trustworthy and durable. You drive middle level cars, neither just basic nor particularly luxurious.
You read books. You take vacations in your own country and sometimes abroad. Travel is important to you. You enjoy its challenges and its pleasures.
You follow some newspapers and magazines in hard copy or online. Being informed about what goes on locally, nationally, and internationally is usually important to you. You move in circles where there is prestige in being up on what is happening in politics and the economy.
You attend colleges and universities with good reputations and do fairly well there. You either earn a degree to help you “get ahead” or you open yourself up to learning, to challenges to world views and ideas you had brought to the college or university you attended. Or maybe both motives were yours and combined in some way you found useful.
Your work is important to you, very much so. Often you find it tests you, stimulates you. You are drawn to the world of business, finding fun and excitement in organizing an enterprise to produce some product or service. Or you decide that being a lawyer will push you to levels of understanding and service that you like. Or practicing medicine or dentistry thrills you because of intense work to maintain healthy bodies and healthy mouths by treating illnesses or preventing them or both. Or pursuing truth in teaching and research and writing inspires you. Or you want to to think through complex physical and organizational problems that engineering and management offer.
THE WORKING CLASS
In between the poor and powerless and the professionals and medium business people are two more groups. One is characterized by physical labor—construction, factory jobs, waste collection, working in skilled trades as plumbers and carpenters and electricians and landscapers and jacks-of-all-trades. You work with your hands and often get dirty. You are commonly called blue collar workers. You are proud of your strength and your physical abilities to make things, fix things. Some of you have the space to create what you do, play an active part in problem solving and in organizing work. Others take orders and make do as best they can with that.
Many of you own homes and enjoy remodeling, renovating, repairing, extending, and decorating them. Or you do the best you can with rental homes. Some can afford a backyard swimming pool, likely above ground. You may buy new cars but just as often buy what are now called pre-owned ones. You take good care of cars, which you expect to last many years and upward of 100,000 miles. You might change the oil yourself and do various repairs on your cars.
You eat at modest priced restaurants, sometimes including fast food places that sell hamburgers or pizza or other quickly made, inexpensive meals. You drink beer and wine, not buying high end of either product. Your cooking tends to be either basic American or ethnic or both. Meals provide an important focus for families and specifically for conversation about daily events, sports, cars, politics.
You buy appliances from Best Buy and Sears and food, clothes, and much else from Target and Walmart. You might also shop at massive grocery chains, and many of you are alert to coupons and bargains. Price may be as or more important than nutrition. You watch a lot of television and keep up with spectator sports as well as serials, reality TV, and endless other forms of entertainment. Between smartphones and laptop computers you connect with the larger world.
Religion may be a central part of your lives or not. You likely belong to a congregation and attend services either regularly or at special holiday times. God may be part of your lives and military service part of your history. You tend to accept politicians’ definitions of what is patriotic and what is not and the inevitability of war as a way to resolve conflicts within or between nations.
You tend to take a dim view of intellectuals and experts. You are as likely to rely on clergy and radio and TV figures for news in the world and opinions about it. You turn to neighbors and friends to learn about products and services and trust commercials and ads to tell you truths about those as well as about political events.
It used to be that men among you found their masculinity through physical exertion in work, sport, and bodybuilding. Now that women can do the same kinds of labor and sports, you still pride yourself, if male, on how work makes your body feel strong and capable, even as, if female, you find pleasure in the same activities and celebrate your body’s strengths in ways that used to be taboo for women.
In families, men among you play an increasing part at home. You may diaper babies, play with children, cook, and do more of the household chores than your fathers did. Women among you may work outside the home part or full time.
Because of the 1%’s penchant for shipping jobs overseas, there are fewer of you than there used to be. And there are far fewer of you are in unions than was the case before 1%’ers hired fancy lawyers from firms specializing in union-busting.
THE LOWER MIDDLE CLASS
And finally there are the nurses, teachers, clerks, secretaries, social workers, librarians, assistants to professionals and small level business people who run shops and stores with a few or no employees. Others work at computers and do all kinds of research and computing that does not include high level programming. You work is skilled but not physical and your pay may or may not be adequate for a decent way of life. You can be called lower middle class.
As I was born into and raised in the lower middle class, I am going to shift from generalizations to the specifics of what I see as my highly typical life and family in Omaha in the lower middle class.
My father was the oldest of seven children of whom six were boys. When his father was about thirty, in 1904, he immigrated to this country from Ukraine, where he made his living buying eggs from peasants and selling them in villages and towns. In 1905, he had saved enough money to bring his eighteen or nineteen year old wife and their three year old (my dad) and one year old sons to Omaha. My grandfather tried being a handyman and lived with his then six children and wife in one windowless room behind the store where he plied his trade. But he couldn’t make it. Next he attempted farming but failed at that too. Finally he bought a small neighborhood grocery store and managed to eke out a living just enough to feed, clothe, and house his wife and children.
My grandfather insisted all six of his sons should become grocers (I guess he figured the daughter would marry and did not need to find work). As the oldest, my father took the brunt of this and other of his father’s harsh ways. To help support the family, he quit school in the ninth grade and enjoyed a job selling men’s clothing, but his father insisted he join him in the grocery store. (As he was near death, at 94, I asked my father if it had occurred to him when his dad ordered him to quit the job he liked and work with him in the grocery business, he might have refused. I see it now, was his sad answer, but I did not then.)
My father loathed being a grocer, but found the only way he could declare independence from his father was to open his own grocery store. He did but continued to hate the business. During much of my childhood, I assumed I would have to grow up and become a grocer too or do some other work I’d find odious.
Not that some lower middle class people are not fulfilled in their work, but unless one works for oneself, the options for fulfillment may be fairIy limited.
My mother was a housewife. She mastered keeping an orderly, attractive, clean house but seemed bored out of her skull doing it. Like my father, Mother was exceptionally bright, arguably more so than her husband, but she did nothing with her smarts. She attended an excellent local Jesuit university for a year, got all As, and loved school. But her immigrant father, also from Ukraine and also coming to the US in 1904, and also a former peddler of peasants’ eggs, wound up a respected member of the tiny Jewish community in Council Bluffs, Iowa, just across the Missouri River from Omaha. My grandfather thought it was fantastic that children could be educated free in this country all the way up through high school and saw no need for schooling beyond that. He forced my mother to quit college after just one year. This was not sexism; he did the same to her younger brother.
Although one can drag out home-making to be a full time job, Mother was too efficient to let that happen. She spent a lot of time on the phone with her two sisters, and the three of them each subscribed to one or two women’s magazines Ladies Home Journal, Redbook, Woman’s Home Companion, and Cosmopolitan. Each time they got together which was usually weekly, they exchanged magazines.
Until I was in college, my parents rented very simple bungalows. Then they bought a small but lovely house. Like working class people, members of the lower middle class may own their own homes or rent. Or live in a comfortable community in a well appointed trailer park.
Our food was typically lower middle class, and I loved my mother’s cooking. She excelled at chili, meatloaf, southern fried chicken, roast chicken, spiced tongue, scrambled eggs with fried salami or bologna, veal chops roasted in a Dutch oven with potatoes and canned tomatoes. And on birthdays, a special treat of a casserole of canned tuna or salmon and bread crumbs, eggs, celery, whatever.
Birthday and Chanukah presents for my two year older brother and me were usually clothes we would get anyway, but they were wrapped so nicely it was a treat to get them. On hot summer days, my brother and I were given a nickel each to buy ice cream cones. Our family ate at a restaurant only once during my entire childhood, and that was simply, according to my mother, for my brother and me to have some idea what a restaurant was like. We were given money for movie matinees on Sundays and treasured the ongoing serials that accompanied the films.
Our family took no vacations, except once for a weekend in Kansas City where my father could watch a professional baseball game. At home, he took my brother and me to baseball games of our local farm team of one of the major league outfits. I went along mainly for the hot dog and Pepsi.
I remember being puzzled that summer camp was touted as a important experience. We were too poor to afford it, and I could not understand why if it was so good for children, camp attendance was tied entirely to one’s family’s income. That made no sense to me and still doesn’t.
My brother and I decided on our own to go to college. This seemed to make our parents happy, but they had neither encouraged nor discouraged our college aspirations. When my brother wound up as a lawyer and I as a professor, our parents seemed slightly bewildered but pleased with the work we had chosen. Indeed, one of our mother’s more moving and delicate routines during our childhoods was to acknowledge that our father was unhappy in his work and that they hoped both of us would find work we wanted to do. What we chose was, happily, entirely up to us.
My father usually voted Republican because as he put it, if he ever made serious money (he did not), he would like to be able to keep as much as possible, and that that position was furthered by Republicans more than Democrats. My mother’s politics were more imaginative and humane than my father’s, but she voted the way he did until she was about sixty and decided to vote for someone she thought was the better candidate, whether my father agreed or not. I saw this as a moment of serious self-determination for her.
THE UPPER CLASS
The upper class, also called the rich and powerful class, are not part of the 99%. To see what characterizes their lives and culture, read the companion piece to this, “Letter to the 1%.”
SOCIAL CLASS AND ASPIRATIONS
Members of the upper class, the 1%, aspire very high. They learn early on that they are meant to own and control the wealth and institutions of our society.
Members of the upper middle class are also taught to aspire high, not to positions of ultimate power and ownership but to attractive places in institutions that the top 1% control by owning them, giving large financial contributions to them, and serving on boards of directors. They determine the policies of institutions, they hire the top personnel, they determine pay and benefit schedules, and so on. You run these institutions for the convenience of the 1%. There are not enough of them to do the administration, so you in effect are their well-paid, comfortably off agents. On behalf of their values and social class interests, you organize and run hospitals, symphony orchestras, law offices, colleges and universities, engineering firms, museums, school systems, state and local governments, businesses including very large ones, insurance companies, pharmaceutical houses, health maintenance organizations, media, high tech companies, agri-businesses, and of course more.
Here is a trick a social class system has to master in order to keep inequalities intact. Youth in the lower middle, working, and lower classes are taught to aspire low. Nobody aspires low of their own accord. No kid grows up saying I want to stock shelves at very low wages in a Walmart or Amazon or fry hamburgers at a fast food place, or re-asphalt crumbling streets.
So how are people taught to aspire low? That’s easy. Put them in underfunded schools with underpaid teachers who are taught to have low expectations of their students. Make school so tedious and poorly equipped that kids will give up expecting stimulation, enlightenment, education. Reward and praise them seldom, and punish them for minor transgressions; by insisting implicitly that they accept dead-end lives and boredom, tacitly push them toward drugs, TV addiction, and lots of drinking. Make it clear that aspiring beyond “their station” is not okay and will get them nowhere.
Those who control the class system have to do that. There is no other way to limit competition for the lucrative positions and lives at or near the top. Otherwise, who will sweep school floors and staff the megastores that pay as poorly as possible? If you will grant me the right to be cynical, I’ll say our education system, often decried as not very good overall, is actually perfect and in no need of repair, as long as we doom millions of people to give up aspiring to creative, challenging, fulfilling work lives and in effect force them into poorly paid, dreary jobs.
THE CORE ISSUE IS WEALTH AND POWER
Each social class—lower, lower middle, working, upper middle, and 1% (which can also be called the rich and powerful or upper class) has its own life style, tastes, spending habits, entertainment preferences, diversions, cuisine, and values. The “American Dream” has always meant that anyone could move upward in that status ladder I’ve just laid out, even though race, gender, and level of education were usually harsher predictors of that possibility than desire and hope.
By and large, whatever advances upward have come undone by now. There is very little upward mobility left in US society, noticeably less than in some others. And downward mobility—losing status and lowering income—is no longer so rare.
You in the lower, working, lower middle, and upper middle classes, how varied you seem to be, and yet something holds you all together in that 99%: you lack the power to affect national and global policies and practices that determine the nature and shape of economies and political systems, indeed of the world itself. You do not make policies about retirement or health care or education or much of anything else. You do not push your nation into war (the 1% do that) or into peace either (although objections to the Vietnam War and success in its ending relied in a moment probably without historical precedent, on demands that came from you, up against the wishes and assumptions of much of the 1%).
You vote for candidates for local, state, and national offices, but at the national level you have just about nothing to do with picking who runs or the policies they will pursue. That is all up to the 1%. Do not fool yourselves into thinking that Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton could run for president without the approval of the 1%. And speaking of politics, what is to be made of perhaps the quirkiest, most bizarre candidate ever for president? The 1%, like the 99%, is split over him. Some support him passionately, some hesitantly, and many oppose him. But the social class issue, the 1%/99% divide, is not who supports him but who publicizes him. And that is the mainstream mass media. Why did they not from the start write Trump off as nuts or unpredictable or dangerous? Because although he is seen as all of that by many in the 1% and many in the 99%, there is nothing in what he advocates that would rock the boats of power and privilege of the 1%. He is, after all, of that class. He might, if elected, tear the country apart for other reasons, but he would not tinker with the 1%/99% divide. Still, the dangers he poses on other grounds than social class have scared even the media so long fascinated by him.
The only major candidate who threatened the power and privilege of the 1% was reported minimally and sketchily. Had Sanders received even one quarter the attention Trump did, his policies and personality would have been early and widely known. Clinton was and is the safe choice for the 1% because unlike Trump, she is supremely well prepared for the job and knows what it is about and like Trump, she is one of them, and like Trump, little she advocates would rock the 1%’s boats.
The idea that life is about status, appearances, and consuming ever more is pushed like a drug upon Americans from education (“the higher the degree, the greater the income”) media (suffocate viewers with ads from which there is no escape), business (for the economy to thrive, citizens have to buy more, more, more, and preferably do so thoughtlessly), government (foreign policy is largely about forcing other countries to let multi-national corporations do whatever they want to make ever more profits, even if this means destroying environments, degrading human life, paying starvation wages or less, forcing poor countries to sell resources at prices set by the corporations, messing with the cultures and social structures of those countries, and forcing poor countries to buy products made by multi-national corporations whose loyalties lie with no country but with the global 1%, period). Also supporting wealth and power inequalities as if they were normal or inevitable (they are neither) are most of religion (don’t try to change social conditions you find intolerable; immerse yourselves in ritual and prayer instead) and the military (take orders that will result in others being killed and possibly you too; you may not question authority that seems reckless, foolish, and fatally destructive).
The 1% are clever (and commonly ruthless) enough to accumulate tons of money and power for and amongst themselves. Although there is no evidence that this makes them more relaxed, more fulfilled, happier, or sexually satisfied than people in the 99%, the 1%’ers seem to be driven by forces larger than they to gain still more wealth and power no matter what. It is after all millionaires and billionaires who insist on tax breaks for themselves that are just about completely meaningless. Most of them have vastly more money than they can possibly spend or have any real use for, but they keep in insisting on more and more of it anyway.
That 1% wants you to obsess over status and life style and to remove your attention altogether from the disparities in wealth, power, and privilege which they enjoy and will defend to the death (yours, not theirs) defending. They want you not even to consider that there may be ways of organizing society that work for the benefit of everyone instead of pitting the 1% and the 99% against each other.
To repeat, it is in what the 1% see as their interest to distract you from their indifference to your lives, incomes, and benefits in life. Persuading you to care only about income and consuming keeps your attention off the deeper issues of justice, violence, unfairness—the freedom to live and love and grow that all people are naturally entitled to—that are of greater and deeper concern to virtually all of you.
Insistence on endless riches and power is not so much a character flaw or an indication of evil tendencies as it is a reflection of forces in the world of the 1% that are probably experienced by them as beyond their control. It is common among people in many parts of society to want to excel at ever improving their talents. Athletes want to better their performances and their scoring records. Musicians want to master more difficult pieces and styles of music. Nurses and doctors want to improve their treatment skills, librarians are challenged with learning ever more complex and convoluted systems of storing and retrieving information, managers want to reduce costs and increase profits to the best of their abilities. And so on.
Part of what motivates people to shine in what they do is their sensitivity and responsiveness to the opinions and reactions of peers. The peers of people who are rich and powerful are other people who are rich and powerful. Being seen as the richest person in the world is probably looked upon more favorably than being the tenth richest person in the world. Or the hundredth. People get caught up in competitive races where the competition is experienced as a valued end in itself.
But there is one gigantic limit on what is to be competed for. It must fall within the boundaries of what is established by the 1% as acceptable. Making money any way it can be made, whether by producing goods and services of quality that people treasure and desire or by engaging in fraud and cruelty in relations with workers and the environment or by selling arms for wars and guns for domestic violence is primary for the 1% to assure continuation of the order of inequality.
Competition is fine in the eyes of the 1% except for people who are not white men competing with them and except for questioning the wealth and power system itself. The taboo logically extends to discouraging in every way possible imagining economic and political systems that damage people and our planet less than those long in place. People who try to do this (remember Karl Marx? Bernie Sanders?) are a threat and therefore intolerable to the 1%.
It may be startling to some in the 99% to hear that Trump is no more a boat rocker than is Clinton. In one way that is true: like all Republican candidates for president, Trump supports tax breaks for the rich and reductions in benefits for the not rich. Where Trump got off the track that usually works for Republicans is in his utterly sarcastic and mean scorn for his fellow candidates, his knack for shooting from the hip, and promoting hatred and violence at his rallies.
Ironically, Trump has simply made more explicit and grotesque the structural violence that has lurked all along in the social class system. Whether intentionally or not, he has surfaced and highlighted the usually somewhat coded racism, nativism, sexism, heterosexism, and American arrogance toward the rest of the entire world that have characterized the Republican Party at least since Richard Nixon’s presidency. And he draws out the anger underlying all that like a physician bringing pus in a sore to the surface to get rid of it. But Trump has no intention of purging you of the pus, which is actually his and his followers’ anger. He makes them drink the pus the way petty cult tyrant Jim Jones made his followers drink a poison concoction that was popularly called KoolAid. Very dangerously, like a true tyrant, Trump exploits the anger he elicits. Anger begets more anger and frequently winds up killing people so enraged they don’t know how to handle it except by yelling, screaming, and hurting anyone they can. Eventually, by the way, it usually destroys the enraged people themselves.
Republicans cannot get elected on a program advocating tax breaks for people who already have more money than they can spend. So they classically change the subject and leave the tax breaks for after the election. They know they cannot get votes on reason. (Who really cares about “small government,” which Republicans tout endlessly? The issue is not its size but what government does for citizens. And when government brings social security, health care, Medicare, education, decent housing, water, police and fire protection services and the like to its population, Republicans prefer not to pay for that from taxes so they want to tax the 99% instead or better yet, dissolve the programs beneficial to the 99%.)
Because reason does not get votes for Republicans (how many of the 99% are going to stand in line to vote for fewer services to them and greater wealth for the 1%?), they very cleverly figured out how to sidestep reason and find other ways to get votes for their candidates serving the interests of the 1%. Although these ways are currently less successful in rallying support for Republicans than they used to be, when successful they are based on something fundamental and true that Republicans understand well and that Democrats tend not to understand at all.
Manipulating emotions, especially fear
In a book called What’s the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank asked why Kansans sometimes vote against their economic interests. Like countless Democrats, Frank is puzzled by this seeming contradiction. That bafflement belies an assumption that Frank makes that is simply not true: that people’s “real” interests are the objective ones of work, working conditions, income, and life style. What Frank misses is that in addition to objective interests people have subjective interests. We live in our guts at least as much as in our heads, and it is to our guts that politicians can appeal ethically or opportunistically.
Bernie Sanders riled up people’s anger at the meanness of the 1%’s manipulations of markets, wealth, and lives of the 99%. Sanders directed anger at the 1%/99% divide responsible for wealth and power differences. It is extremely rare in American politics that a candidate for president actually identifies the 1% (Sanders does not use this term; he refers to the 1% as the billionaires and millionaires) and details their damage to the rest of society and even nature.
How can those elites get away with their manipulations for so long? It’s rather easy. It’s by diverting attention from real circumstances to emotionally loaded fake ones. It was President Richard Nixon who realized that in order to win national office Republicans had to wrest substantial numbers of white voters of the 99% away from the Democrats and into the Republican column. What Nixon called the “Southern strategy” could have more frankly but fatally been called the “racist strategy.” Its success—was to convince Southern white racists that the Republican Party was as racist as they and would, in exchange for votes, honor their racism.
Job losses are a serious issue for the 99%, but it’s the corporations—the millionaires and the billionaires who shut down US plants in favor of lower wage plants abroad—not immigrants, who are responsible for job losses.
Republicans eventually learned they could encourage and exploit racism and sexism too. If whites did not want to share power, wealth, and honor with non-whites, so did men not want to share power, wealth, and honor with women. The reasons to oppose abortion rights and contraception was not about abortion or reproduction, it was about men wanting to regain control over women that had been challenged and often ended by feminism. The idea was to get women back into the nursery and the kitchen so they would not compete with men in the numerous public places from which men had excluded them for millennia. Surely Republicans never overtly said, Let’s whoop it up for racism and sexism, but discerning voters, whether consciously or not, recognized that white male voters, who were such a substantial part of the Republican voting base, were on their same page.
What Trump did, to the embarrassment of countless Republicans of the 1%, was to tear out those somewhat disguised racist and sexist pages from the Republican playbook and make them into bombs which he frequently explodes carrying Republican rhetoric to extremes no Republican before him had ever dared reach. He called women disgusting and pigs and dogs. Whether or not they may have thought that, I think no Republican presidential candidate before him ever said that. Because African American gains have been considerable in the last fifty years, Trump could not be as overtly racist toward them as he was sexist toward women. But he found other ways to present his racism and did so loudly and proudly. If American racism classically defines the African American as the hated, unwanted, unfamiliar “other,” what Trump discovered early on was that he could substitute Mexicans and Muslims for African Americans and thus pluck on the racist string many white Americans have somewhere on their patriotic banjos. Trump, like most Americans, does not know enough about Islam or Muslim cultures to have opinions about them one way or the other. So he just slams Muslims altogether, defines them as the threatening other, and gets his fans’ support for doing so.
The point, to make it as clear as possible, is that Republicans distract voters by displacing their attention from real issues (shifting millions of jobs overseas, tax breaks for the very rich, making war and calling upon knee-jerk patriotism to support it, maintaining bloated arms budgets, underfunding education, health care, infrastructure maintenance, and denying climate change and plans to halt it) onto fake matters, which include racism, sexism, anti-immigration, and LGBTQ issues.
Right wing leaders have known forever that the only way to rally people behind you if you have nothing to offer that they need and want is to fuel their fears. Make them afraid of people they have no reason to fear (Blacks, women, gays, Muslims) and then claim only you can protect them from these (manufactured and bogus) threats to your existence. Republicans tell you whom to fear and exploit the fears they implant in you like electronic devices surgically inserted into your brains.
I do not mean to suggest Republicans are all bad and Democrats are all good. Republicans are incredibly courageous, insistent, and strong in leading the 99% astray. But their values are exclusively those of and for the 1%. The Republican ideal, called conservative but not that at all, is government for, by, and of the 1%.
Democrats tend to do a milder version (or maybe not so mild?) of the same thing. They distract you from injustices, the arms industry, the prison-industrial complex, and the racism, sexism, and homophobia so powerfully promoted by the right and which the Democrats do not fully confront head on. They distract you by telling you that a tax break here and there, some scholarship money and education loans, a health care system that still does not cover everyone and that allows for completely unnecessary huge profits for insurance and pharmaceutical companies, are better than the nothing at all offered by Republicans.
Bernie Sanders came forth, loud and clear, with the courage Democrats usually lack and suggested we need and could create conditions that would work in the interests of the 99%. But like the Republican elites, the elites that run the Democratic Party feared that under a Sanders presidency the public would benefit and the elites would lose. So the media covered Sanders remarkably insufficiently and marveled less at the policies Clinton stands for than the hammer she would properly take to break the glass ceiling that has kept women from the presidency. They want her in, no matter what. Once in, she of course, with assistance from Sanders and his formidable support base, might rethink and re-gear some or much of what she has so far represented. Maybe.
SO HOW CAN REPUBLICANS WIN ELECTIONS?
If Republicans usually base their electoral strategy on playing to anger and discontents among white males in our country, now that non-whites and women are more numerous than white men, how can Republicans win elections? It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible either.
The media have for at least forty years played into Republicans’ hands by misdefining them as “conservatives.” Republicans with some modest exceptions are not conservatives. Conservatives want to conserve, to save, to savor and sustain the strengths of our government, its laws, its values, the virtues of our society.
I dare the mass media to drop the “conservative” label from the Republican Party and replace it with the accurate designation of “reactionary.” By definition, reactionaries want to undo gains that benefit anyone but rich, white, straight, Christian, Western men. By continuing to support the prison-industrial complex whose goal is making the owners of prisons as rich as possible, they mock justice and create a vast population of people many of whom do not deserve to be in prison. They want to undo affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act that work to redress centuries of systemic racism. They want to undo a health care system that offers benefits to the masses. They want to undo free and good public education and let only the rich be able to afford excellent education for their heirs. They want to undo the rights of women to maintain control over their bodies. They want to undo access to good sex education and contraception. They wan to undo respect and equality for people of all sexual orientations. All this is reactionary. It is NOT conservative.
It is part of reactionary politics to distract people from their real interests onto phony other ones that bother not the 1%. And there are other ways too that reactionaries can be elected.
Voter suppression: keep large numbers of voters from the polls
The desperate fallback position is, of course, voter suppression. Mocking democracy as tends to be their wont (by, e.g., such Supreme Court decisions as those declaring corporations to be people [are they cremated or buried when they die? and oh—can we see their birth certificates?], determining money to be a form of free speech [so the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson don’t really have quantitatively more free speech than I do? If there is a logic there other than naked opportunism, it escapes me], and the Citizens United decision that combines those other two into a Mammoth Mockery of Democracy based on the assumption that the very rich are not unduly influential on our political system if they can give as much money as they want to support political candidates they favor and are responsible to no one to reveal how much they give and to whom.
Republicans are faced with the perplexing reality that most younger people, African American people, poor people, female people, Jewish people, Hispanic people, Asian-American people, military veteran people, disabled people, and GLBTQ people are less than luke-warm to the combination of wealth shunted upward and out of control rage shunted onto false objects like Blacks, women, foreigners, and gays that characterizes the vanguard of today’s Republican Party.
So voter suppression! Yes, that’s the ticket! Keep those bastards from voting, right? Well, it’s not so easy. First you need a reason. A reason? Yes, a reason. Well, that’s easy, we’ll make it hard for people who might not vote Republican to vote at all. That’s a tactic, not a reason. Oh, yeah. Well, the reason is voter fraud. We have to reduce voter fraud. But the data reveal there is just about zero fraud in our voting system. Ha! You seem to have forgotten altogether that the New Republican Party scorns data, mocks evidence, has no use for facts. So you are cultivating a voter base of over-the-top angry people so modestly educated and unaware of being urged by their “betters” to confuse opinion with truth that they are vulnerable to ruthless exploiters of both their anger and their modest education. Right?
When we are faced with this kind of pickle, it’s easiest for people like us New Republicans to change the subject. We insist there is voter fraud whether the facts show it or not. We will demand forms of identification that will discourage countless people from voting—African Americans, Latinos, college students, Asian Americans, any group likely to vote Democratic—and we’ll get our base out in droves.
You guys are incredibly good at lying, cheating, and stealing. You lie mercilessly about candidates, like trashing John Kerry’s honorable military record in Vietnam. So—lying is part of politics. Don’t you know that? And rape is part of social relations, but people of integrity try to reduce it. You don’t try to reduce your lying.
You say we cheat and steal as well as lie. Evidence? Evidence? You want evidence? You who scorn evidence on climate change, voter fraud, nicotine poisoning, weapons of mass destruction, evolution, the relationship of abundantly available guns and individual and mass homicide, neo-cons’ record of leading us into wars the US always loses? You want evidence? Amazing. But here it is: voter suppression is a form of cheating. You cheat a lot. The day following the 2000 election, two African American ministers in Florida whose churches were polling places reported that their ballot boxes were not picked up. That’s cheating as was offering voters in Palm Beach, Florida a ballot so confusing that great numbers of Jews, whom even Pat Buchanan admitted would never vote for him, wound up mistakenly marking their ballots for him. There were voting age college students in Florida, as well as ex felons, who were not allowed to vote. That’s cheating. And because of that cheating, Bush “won” Florida by a few hundred votes and on that basis was made President by the Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court in a decision that even right wing legal scholars claim is possibly the worst reasoned decision the Supreme Court ever made. Had that majority a conscience and a good judge’s sense of right and wrong, they would have ordered a new vote in Florida, to be closely monitored by people from other countries. Opportunism overrode decency, logic, and good law. Is that cheating or stealing or perhaps both?
And stealing? How do you see Republicans as stealing? Creating gerrymandered zig-zag voting districts that are rigged for you to win. That’s stealing. Both parties partake of that profoundly anti-democratic tactic, but you have figured out how make a complete farce of it with voting districts so rigged that even if Republicans are less supported than Democrats, Republicans get into office.
But enough of your sophomoric pranks on voting. Let’s go on to a place where you seem genuinely to be losing it.
THE BYPASSED: REPUBLICANS ARE STILL REELING FROM MAJOR CHANGES OF THE LAST SIXTY YEARS
Most Republicans seem not to have recovered yet from the Civil Rights movement of the fifties. It ended legal race discrimination but in retrospect, it left racist feelings and actions intact even wile it successfully promoted equal access to public facilities like lunch counters, buses, and restrooms and promoted affirmative action, a Martin Luther King holiday, and more. That African Americans need not be subservient to whites and are entitled to the same respect, dignity, and opportunities as everyone else continues to stick in the craw of lots of people, Republicans more than Democrats. And reactionaries above all.
Fast forward a decade. The determination to end the war in Vietnam was without precedent in US history. Fueled by draft vulnerable youths who did not want either to kill or be killed in a war that made no sense to them, the movement came to be embraced by working class people initially hostile to it and countless soldiers and veterans of the war itself. This was not only a challenge to a war; it was a challenge to the wisdom and authority of the people who conducted the war and wound up killing 50,000 or so Americans and about 3,000,000 Vietnamese.
The seventies saw a women’s movement, whatever distance it has to go for full and true gender equality, win women’s rights to serve in occupations previously closed to them, including the military, corporations, universities, banks, media companies, perhaps our nation’s presidency, and other institutions that used to exclude them; to be taken seriously as artists and thinkers and politicians and chefs and physicians and lawyers and engineers; and to demand an end to sexual exploitation, sexual assault, and gender condescension. Women as accomplished athletes, politicians, and corporation heads are no longer curiosities or exceptions.
Taboos on homosexuality are crumbling and the accompanying messages about sexual pleasure and the nature of love are liberating tens of millions of people even while they understandably confuse and frighten millions of others, especially reactionaries. The eighties and decades following have seen homosexuality become increasingly acceptable to the point where more and more once closeted gays, including even athletic celebrities, are coming forth to declare their sexual preferences, and the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of gay marriage. The very conservative Supreme Court of the United States struck down the oddly named Defense of Marriage Act (odd because gays and Lesbians had for a decade been defending marriage; the framers of the restrictive legislation clearly meant defense of heterosexual marriage, but that is not what the title of the law no longer in effect said) and also negated a California referendum that denied homosexual marriage even after it had earlier been approved by the state). Although transgenderism is still widely rejected and persecuted, it is no longer the hidden reality of earlier days.
In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the rather sudden explosion of discontents among what has come to be called the 99%, in Greece, Spain, Tunisia, Egypt, and much of the Arab world, Chile, Quebec, Israel, Turkey, and Brazil and through the brief but nearly universal Occupy movement in countless cities in the US and the rest of the world has surely startled and puzzled what is now called the 1%. This should not be forgotten.
Time out: however brief its life, the Occupy movement left an enduring cultural legacy to the masses of discontented people: a social class analysis that opened the way for Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in effect to take on the 1% in blistering critiques and plans for how to undo or transcend the damage done by the banking and corporate powers of the 1%.
The last time there was a public social class analysis in the United States that amounted to anything was during the Great Depression of the 1930s. There was a serious union movement, a serious socialist party, and a serious communist party all of which made much of social class analysis. The potential insights and rage that were opening up were undercut by the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt’s determined successes in ameliorating Depression-caused misery by softening its blows by way of Social Security, unemployment insurance, jobs programs, and more.
Things are out of whack: the bypassed
In 1965, Bob Dylan wrote Ballad of a Thin Man, with this refrain:
…something is happening
And you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones ?
Dylan was writing about the sixties and the inability of an ordinary person, Mr. Jones, to get it and what it implied. Fast forward to the second decade of the 21st century and consider the vast changes of the previous sixty years. In the nineteen-fifties, millions of African Americans who could no longer stand being humiliated, dumped on, and deprived of economic, political, and just about all other human civic pleasures created the civil rights movement. Like all such efforts, its work is not complete, but people of color have made great strides since the days of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and they have done so without recourse to violence.
Now, unexpectedly at least to the white majority, a second civil rights movement is under way. It began with the wanton February 2014 killing in Florida of young Trayvon Martin by a vigilante whom police instructed to stay away from the scene. A few months later, police in Ferguson, Missouri killed Michael Brown, another young Black man, for walking in a street rather than on a sidewalk. Whites who were paying attention learned that every week one or more Black people—mostly young men and sometimes women—are routinely killed by police, usually for the flimsiest reasons rarely or never applied to whites, and that about 99% of the time, police officers who commit these murders get off with no charges, often by being released from them by grand juries whose custom it apparently is to assume innocence on the part of the cop. As one after another story piled up, a movement arose, Black Lives Matter, and countless whites were puzzled by the anger behind it.
Lawyer Michelle Alexander around this time published The New Jim Crow, a book whose startling news includes the statistic that there are currently more Black men in jail than there were existing under slavery at any given time. Jail is seen as the new plantation system disenfranchising Blacks and subjecting them to degradation, humiliation, and brutalization that certainly vie with those of slavery and Jim Crow for their cruelty and dehumanization.
Although much was accomplished in the civil rights movement, racism remains one of the core agonies and hypocrisies of US society. In addition to the killings without consequences by police officers and the occasional self appointed vigilante, Blacks are disenfranchised in growing numbers by what appears to be an increasingly puzzled and desperate Republican Party that knows that people will not knowingly vote for the income transfer upwards that it represents most fully.
For some years, the Republican Party successfully distracted enough voters from its cynical, opportunistic fiduciary purpose by turning attention to so-called “social issues of which one sticks out uniquely: sex. There is little doubt that Republican politicians in significant numbers engage in adulterous, gay, paid, and other forms of rogue sex but delight in presenting to the public a false façade of adherence to the most Puritan of sexual commitments and assumptions.
As countless citizens struggle with their sexuality in one way or another, it is not awfully surprising that Republican strategists tsk-tsk at such seemingly obvious—to them—perversions as birth control, female autonomy, gay sex, and transgenderism. The sex thing is usually good for riling up the Tea Party base and some of its sympathizers, but as almost all sexually active women in this country use birth control, as growing numbers of women favor taking control of women’s bodies out of male hands, and as gay sex and marriage become increasingly acceptable to majorities, the Republicans have less of their usual fodder left for distracting the 99% from the primary Republican project of redistributing wealth upward.
All this puzzled me until I came across a YouTube video of MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow. On July 16, 2009, Maddow interviewed Pat Buchanan, one time candidate for US president. Buchanan seemed puzzled over what is happening in our country. I don’t get it, he exclaimed on Maddow’s show. “I think white men were 100% of the people who wrote the constitution, 100% of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence, 100% of the people who died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, probably close [to] 100% of the people who died at Normandy. This has been a country basically built by white folks.”
On her program three days later, Maddow said she felt obligated to correct some of what Buchanan claimed the week before. The White House, she pointed out, was “built by slaves who were not white folks. The U.S. Capitol, the physical building… was built by slaves. The city of Washington, D.C., where Pat spent his entire life, was built in part by slave labor. It‘s not even possible to imagine how America could have competed for a place in the global economy in the 1800s without plantation cotton and tobacco and sugar and rice and the other industries thoroughly dependent on slave labor.”
Maddow then revealed that over 200,000 African-Americans fought in the Civil War and 1.2 million African-Americans in World War II. Chinese workers built the railroads, and 10,000 Mexican Americans fought on the Union side in the Civil War, and hundreds of thousands of Latinos served in World War II. Maddow’s response was clear and strong. This country was not built solely by white men.
Then came my biggest surprise: my heart went out to Buchanan. He’s not a cynical, empty manipulator. He really believes this country belongs to him and all the other white males here.
Almost in shock that I found it easy to empathize with Buchanan, my
thoughts drifted next to imperialism and colonialism. For the last two to three
hundred years, rich, white, (ostensibly) straight, Christian, Western men have
organized the world to concentrate wealth and power among themselves. They
could not do it alone and so cultivated the assistance of non-white, non-Western
collaborators in every country they invaded.
In recent times, it is increasingly clear that the hegemony of the traditional global elites is fading. It has not ended, and it will not wither without gigantic struggles, but the handwriting is on the wall. And it cannot be erased.
China and India are coming up fast. They are neither white nor Western nor Christian. Women are rising to high positions in dozens of societies. Homosexuality is accepted in more and more parts of the world. Racism is increasingly in trouble in the US and elsewhere. Although US racists seemed unable to comprehend and accept that an unusually intelligent Black man was elected to the US presidency, the fact of his position has had a more profound and effect on US society than anything he has said or done as president. There is no explanation for the reactionary Tea Party forcing the Republican Party not to work at all with Obama except for the color of his skin. People offended by that were surely equally unable to come to terms with a Black woman in the White House who was not a cook, nanny, or cleaner but the First Lady, and an incredibly smart, talented, gracious one at that.
What is all this about? Consider that we choose, whether consciously or not, how to identify the core of our identities. If for Buchanan it is masculinity or whiteness or heterosexuality or Christianity, then it makes sense to me that he is baffled by the vast changes of the last sixty to seventy years in US society: the civil rights movement of the fifties, the anti-Vietnam War movement of the sixties and seventies, the women’s movement of the seventies and eighties, the GLBTQ movement of the nineties up to the present. If in his heart of hearts he takes for granted conventional race, gender, sexuality, and religious markers he has let define him, then I feel for and accept the puzzlement he revealed on Maddow’s show.
Rather than be harsh with him, blending with her obvious self-righteousness, suppose Maddow had asked Buchanan what it feels like to have familiar and taken-for-granted rugs pulled out from under him. She might have suggested that it must indeed feel strange to find privileges long taken for granted mocked and trashed.
I bring this up because I believe that the last six decades in US society have featured a whirlwind of changes which are welcomed by some and feared and abhorred by others. It is those who fear and abhor change that Trump speaks to brilliantly. When he says, let’s make America great again, he gives us no idea what he means. When was it last great? Was it under slavery? Was it after that, when Jim Crow laws and lynching flourished? Was it before women could vote? Was it when the stock market crashed in 1929? Was it when communists were still the feared and hated other? What greatness has our country lost, and by what policies and actions (other than pure verbal bluster) does Trump plan to make it “great” again?
It is quite possible that Make America Great Again is nothing more than an empty marketing slogan, like Make Your Teeth Whiter, or Drive a Car That is Completely Different. Trump’s is just a slogan, but it’s a slogan with at least two hidden meanings. The most obvious one is, Make American White Again. We know that in another two or three decades, non-whites will outnumber whites in this country. This is a problem only if one assumes that whites are superior to non-whites, which is indeed a basic assumption of racism. Rather than exploiting confusion, suppose Trump (or some other leader) were to reason that in the world today all peoples can be considered equally smart, dignified, and worthy of respect. A forward looking leader would do that. Trump is a backward looking leader.
All of this is necessary to make sense of Trump’s peculiar obsession with Barack Obama’s birthplace. As the evidence is hard and complete that Obama was born in Hawaii, what is the meaning of Trump insisting since 2011 that Obama was born in Kenya? Despite his later rejection of his years-long claim, Trump seems unable to pay close attention to truth, it may be that he confused the birthplace of Obama’s father, also named Barack Obama, with that of the son. This would be really sloppy on Trump’s part as countless men have the same first and last names as their fathers, but again, he does seem peculiarly casual and inattentive to simple facts.
The other and more likely reason for Trump’s addiction to his birther error is that he has simply been saying all along that if a man is not white he is not “one of us” and therefore is unqualified to be President of the United States. This is raw racism and not uncommon among whites who are confused about human equality.
The second hidden meaning in Make America Great Again is: Make America Masculine Again. Trump’s contempt for women and arrogance toward them masks what is surely a fear that women are smarter than he (countless are), more moral than he (not always but often) and more honest than he (true of most people).
Elizabeth Warren has said that Trump is “a toxic stew of hatred and insecurity.” The hatred part is obvious, but what about the insecurity? Women tend to be far clearer than men about how men are taught to deny their insecurities and to layer them over with swagger, strutting, and boasting. Beneath self-promotion, at which Trump is a master, usually lies extreme self-doubt.
His many business failures, his frequent refusal to pay bills including very large ones having to do with constructing golf courses and hotels, his likely skullduggery in tax returns he refuses to reveal, his incapacity to feel warmth for anyone other than white men and white women he finds attractive, his compulsive lying, his making up “facts,” his mocking people who have integrity and smarts, his ridiculing disabled people, his scorn for science and evidence and decency, his actively promoting hatred and violence at his rallies all add up to a frantic effort to elevate what he probably deep inside feels is an unworthy self, trying desperately hard to pretend to rise above people whom he feels threatened by and actually inferior to because of their honor and their integrity.
There is a theory of competition that underlies much of what goes on in the world. Explicitly, it is assumed in that theory that competition is good, that it is the only reliable motivator for good performance, and that “winning” anything is good and “losing” is bad. Remember that Trump is obsessed with winning and says if he is president we will win so much people will be sick of winning.
What can that possibly mean? Winning what? When? Why?
What is seldom recognized is an implicit corollary to the assumption that winning is good: losers, it is assumed—and this is crucial to this particular theory of competition—accept that loss is inevitable sometimes and then move past the disappointment and anger that may accompany it.
This is the Achilles heel of the widely assumed theory of competition. Let’s examine how it plays itself out.
Think back to the (in)famous Treaty of Versailles ending World War One that ground the faces of the losing party, the Germans, into the victors’ gravel of triumph, contempt, and punishment. It is not hard to imagine the degradation and anger felt by the defeated Germans. We can draw a pretty clear line connecting that gigantic loss and Hitler’s cunning ability to stroke and stoke it. Suppose the victorious parties of World War One had, as they did at the end of World War Two, helped the overrun enemy recover economically in place of excoriating and humiliating them.
Second example: the US Civil War or the War of Northern Aggression as it is still commonly known in the South. The Southern states lost the war, but after Lincoln’s assassination, slavery reorganized around Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, and the endless norms of racial pseudo-superiority that have marked Southern society—with significant spillover to the North—ever since. Under President Nixon, the Republican Party’s slightly coded racism called the Southern Strategy did indeed succeed in weaning racist southerners from the by then less racist Democratic Party to the by then fully racist Republican Party. Suppose there had been a conversation that allowed the disappointed, conquered southerners to process their reactions to what they surely experienced as their shameful defeat. Compassionate public recognition of what it feels like to lose a war but also to lose a cherished way of life, assumptions about race and God and goodness, appreciation of the civil order itself could have allowan empathic understanding rather than disdain, for what the losers of the Civil War all but inevitably felt.
And thus back to Pat Buchanan. What plays, movies, music, poems, and other art forms could evolve as venues for identifying the feelings of hurt, anger, disappointment, and humiliation that he revealed obliquely to Rachel Maddow?
Let’s look at this more closely. Why in struggles for change like the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the women’s movement, and the GLBTQ movement do some people welcome change and others oppose it? Calling members of one group liberal or progressive and the others conservative or reactionary pastes labels on them; it does nothing to explain their differences.
For that we need to turn to the concept of identity. People seem to need to identify themselves at their cores as one thing or another. I am an athlete. I am a singer. I am a blue collar worker. I am an activist. Or I am white, or male, or Christian or Jewish or Muslim. Or whatever. If the core of one’s sense of self is indeed as athlete or singer or white or male then any threat to the power and appeal of that identity is understandably to be experienced as an attack upon the self.
Hence if I identify as proudly white, then a movement that claims that all people deserve equal respect and dignity will cloud my assumption of the superiority of whiteness. Similarly many men still insist on their superiority to women. That is the core of the rage at Hillary Clinton.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The core of one’s identity does not have to imply that it is superior to other identities, but built into the pervasive theory of competition is that having certain qualities (political skill, football skill, white skin, external genitals) makes one superior to people who lack those skills and qualities.
So that core is implicitly comparative, and that is the heart of the problem. I am white and you are black is an objective description, but I am white and therefore better than you who are black is not a description. It’s a comparison along two dimensions. One is a value dimension: skin color is important and white is better than black. The other is subtler and trickier. It is an emotional dimension: I feel good about myself, superior, accomplished because I am white and not black. The culture’s value position manifests itself in my emotional response to it.
If I have a lot at stake in being white, the civil rights movement will come as not only a shock but an insult. It means I have either to abandon my assumption about the superiority of my whiteness and exchange it for the civil rights movement’s alternative assumption that all peoples are equally valuable and equally beautiful or if thus restructuring my sense of my whiteness is too frightening or even overwhelming, I will dig in my heels and insist my earlier assumption remains true and that nothing will budge me from it no matter what.
What I am talking about here is people I call “the bypassed.” Movements have evolved in the world that willy-nilly bypass the whites, the males, the straights from their previously assumed positions of superiority. It takes a lot of work to recognize others as equal who used to be considered inferior or disgustingly different. The bypassed need to find ways to express what it feels like to be faced with changes unforeseen and unwanted and how to come to terms with them.
Just as Pat Buchanan was apparently taught that whites are superior to non-whites, so was he likely taught that men are superior to non-men, or as we more commonly call them, women. To shift from Buchanan to my journey on this topic, I was hired in 1964 by Brandeis University to teach in its Sociology Department. I became the twelfth white man in a department of twelve white men. I did not at that time notice there were no women and no non-whites in the department I was entering. Neither stupid nor blind to social realities, I simply viewed the world through the spectacles available in universities at that time.
Fast forward sixteen years. 1980. Faculty at my university are considering joining many other universities in establishing a women’s studies program for undergraduates. Some professors, all male, are startled by the very idea of this and shrink back from it. One asks, sarcastically, Well if we have a women’s studies program, won’t we need to set up a men’s studies program too? In a very loud voice, I blurt out, We already have a men’s studies program: it’s called the curriculum.
The obvious challenge was to male hegemony but also to the identities of faculty for whom being male might have been a core piece of self. And so too then with LGBTQ issues. The choices by now are enormous. One can identify oneself as sexual and let the implications of that be both ambiguous and fluid. Or one can adhere to the conventional male-female binary and stick with the version of it that has sex as between someone from one of those two groups and someone from the other. Period. The sexualities issue raises complexities not so common in race and gender matters. Just as one can get past the white-nonwhite binary and past the male-female binary, one can also abandon the straight-nonstraight binary, but that is harder, for it appears increasingly that seemingly straight people commonly yearn for more diverse and rich sexual connections but repress those desires in the name of conformity to what have been commonly seen as larger societal demands.
In all these cases—race, gender, and sexualities—the challenge is not just to let go of notions that one part of the conventional binary is preferable to the other. There is a second, equally compelling option, which is to understand reasons for the conventional binaries and to discard them as no longer useful or adequate to describe what is emerging as far richer, more complex realities and choices.
I am calling for a politics of working with those who experience themselves as bypassed in conventional wars and culture wars. If Trump loses the upcoming Presidential election, would it not be wise to encourage his followers to express their rage and disappointment nonviolently? Can we prepare for this? If so, how?
We can identify in center and left media, outpourings of scorn, sarcasm, condescension, contempt, vilification for Trump and his supporters. There are analyses of what motivates them but far fewer exercises in listening compassionately to their discontents. It is more than likely that a substantial percentage of Trump supporters are the bypassed, people who felt loss when others were boasting of gains. Losing privilege is eventually liberating but for a while, really painful. Just as Israeli Jews rarely empathize with Palestinians’ experiences of occupation, harassment, and humiliation, just as Brexit-leaning Brits appear deaf to the experiences of immigrants to their country and unacquainted with their stories, and just as the anti-leavers appear to be indifferent to the anger and dislocations felt by the pro-leavers, so might Americans who celebrate expansions of liberties be accused of not responding to their fellow citizens bothered and bewildered by assertions of people of color, women, and non-straight sexuality in our society.
MAKING MONEY OFF DEATH
In 1998 in a book called Rambo and the Dalai Lama: the Compulsion to Win and Its Threat to Human Survival, I observe that humanity has assumed the “adversary paradigm.” This means not that everyone has to be on their guard against threats from other people but rather that we are, in the world of the adversary paradigm, taught that opposition and enemyness is natural and unavoidable. That is no more true than is the assumption that whites are superior to non-whites, men are superior to women, and heterosexuals are superior to homosexuals and transsexuals. What distinguishes those familiar claims and holds them together is not that they are immutably true but that they are all expressions —indeed fierce ones—of the adversary assumption that somehow everyone is out to get everyone else, people want to mock and humiliate you, and you have to be on your guard constantly or others will defeat your efforts to live as you wish.
This is paranoia: the belief that everyone else is out to get you, and it is built into adversarialism, lock, stock, and barrel. Ordinarily men are taught this earlier and more emphatically than are women. It underlies justifications for war, and it is at the heart of the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) insistence that because everyone is your potential enemy, you have to have a gun to get them before they get you. If that means killing, not only is that the way it goes, but it is good for the bottom line of the weapons industry, for which making money selling guns is more meaningful and fulfilling than preserving and celebrating life.
As I was growing up, what little I knew of the NRA was that it defended the interests of men (in those days of my childhood shooters were exclusively men, as far as I know) who liked to hunt animals. In more recent years I came to realize that the NRA is mainly whooping the public up to buy guns. It is an extremely powerful lobby not for citizen safety but for gun industries’ profits.
This is reality not because investors in the gun business are evil or stupid but because they are so caught up in profits and in their assumption that we are all each other’s enemies that they can see the world only as a cockfight in which every rooster is out to destroy the other roosters or they will be destroyed by them.
It is vital to note that there is nothing in nature that drives roosters to fight each other. Rather it is the owners of those roosters who train them to fight. In this respect, the owners of the roosters are like the 1% under whose reign warriors—by now women as well as men—are taught that they have tobe vigilant all the time and knock out enemies before they are knocked out by them.
What is to be made of an economic theory and practice for which vast amounts of money are made off murder? It is one thing to enjoy profits off selling tomatoes and clothes, and quite another to make profits off selling weapons of mass destruction. What Saddam Hussein was inaccurately accused of harboring would at its worst have been small potatoes compared with the US arms arsenal—surely the largest cache of weapons of mass destruction in the world.
Karl Marx, whom few in the 1% have actually read and also probably few in the 99%, provocatively observed that capitalism is the first and only economic system that is so efficiently and well organized that it can routinely produce more than can be consumed. Spending money on armaments, he reasoned, was a safety valve for excess productivity that could otherwise explode the system.
Indeed, the US got out of the Great Depression mainly by way of spending made possible by the Second World War. (Marx could not foresee that consumerism would become a second means for siphoning off excess funds and productive capacity.) In the first case, the system’s task is to convince publics that war is a viable way of resolving a problem. Even though the arguments are usually based on lies and propaganda, there are time honored public relations techniques that arouse a population’s energies and hatred to sanction mass killings (and implicitly the profits underlying them) in its name. It is preferable surely to spend those excess monies on consumers goods than war, but profits are greater in armaments than in shoes, and so eventually the advantage goes to the war parties.
In 1965, a song about rockets in the Second World War was penned by political satirist Tom Lehrer. “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department!” says Wernher von Braun. [Von Braun was a Nazi scientist who worked for the United States after the war. The USSR and the US divvied up the surviving Nazi rocket scientists between them.]
That sentiment reflects perfectly what I see as the world view of the gun industry in the US. Just as the point of the toothpaste industry is to sell toothpaste, the point of the gun industry is to sell guns. The gigantic difference is that no one is harmed by toothpaste, but huge numbers of people are killed by guns. Only something like 2% of those deaths are from mass killings, which get all the media and public tsk-tsk attention. Check out this:
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2013, firearms were used in 73,505 nonfatal injuries (23.23 per 100,000 U.S. citizens)  and 11,208 deaths by homicide (3.5 per 100,000), 21,175 by suicide with a firearm, 505 deaths due to accidental discharge of a firearm,and 281 deaths due to firearms-use with “undetermined intent” for a total of 33,636 deaths due to “Injury by firearms”, or 10.6 deaths per 100,000 people. 1.3% of all deaths in the country were related to firearms.
That’s about 92 killings per day in a 365 day year. Notice twice as many people use guns to kill themselves as use them to kill other people and that over twice as many people are injured (over 200 per day) as are killed. There is no evidence that many of these deaths are in self defense, and indeed over two decades ago the gun lobby convinced a cowardly Congress to forbid research on gun violence by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The adversary assumption is like a gigantic magnet that draws every human to it and sets them against other people in the force field of other magnets. The metal filings/people cannot walk away from what magnetizes them, but humans can walk away from the paradigm that magnetizes them once they understand that it is there and can be logically and ethically abandoned.
The incorrect assumption that we have no choice but to serve as each other’s adversaries underlies not only safety fantasies and gun sales, it also underlies that magnified to the largest possible level: war. What is war?
Well, war is many things. The arms industry is like the gun industry in that it is a set of practices and manufactures that makes money off killing. Bombing. Torturing. Maiming. Murdering. Hurting. Brutalizing. Assassinating. Executing. Slaughtering. Massacring. Wasting. Snuffing. Butchering. Exterminating. Liquidating.
You get the idea. Well, why does one set of warriors go after another set of warriors, hammer and tongs poised to inflict maximum damage on the other side? Well, it is always claimed, because the other side intends to do that to us. We are only defending ourselves. The other side has forced us into this.
And of course that is the story the other side tells too. Exactly the same story. Bullies always deny they are the instigators. The fault is always with the other party.
So see war as a hideous death dance of reciprocal assumptions and misinformation. But since humans are just as capable of love and cooperation as they are of hate and opposition, who pushes the assumption of irreducible hatred and violence from the other side?
In the modern period, anyone can do this, but it is—surprise?—the 1% that is ultimately behind it. For several reasons. The first is that profits off war are greater than profits off peace. War means money make off selling bombs, bombers, guns, bullets, battleships, rockets.
A public, though, is not likely to support profits for makers of war stuff for its own sake. A public has to be sold on some grand reason for war that justifies making and selling and using the war stuff. This justification proceeds in two ways. One is the objective reason and the other is a set of coverups for it.
The real reason is that war is in this era and earlier ones too is mainly about theft. War begins about 10,000 years ago when humans brilliantly invent agriculture. Until then, humans were like all other animals, spending most of their time looking for food, eating it when they found it, moving around (humans have been nomads for most of our several hundred thousand year history), getting out of the way of larger predatory animals, eating animals it could kill and ingest, and finding shelter from rain and snow and cold. Humans lived in very small wandering groups—a few dozen people at most—and had few possessions.
With agriculture, humans were able for the first time to settle down in one place because agriculture meant a reliable food supply. It also meant that not everyone had to be finding food. Agriculture is so efficient that most members of a group can do other things than produce food. With settlement, people could have more children and could specialize in other activities than food gathering. They could construct shelter, make clothing and pots and baskets. Some could become religious specialists and some warriors. Why warriors?
With a reliable food supply, people could not eat just what they gathered on a certain day. People who were still nomads likely found the stored up food attractive and decided to take it it rather than creating their own agricultural communities.
How would people who had no stored food come into food other people had saved? By battle. They would take what they wanted even if that meant destroying whoever had created it.
War is almost certainly from the start, about theft. Food. Then gold, jewels, houses, furniture, maybe even clothing. As war developed, armies could overrun towns and cities and kingdoms and grasp whatever was there for the taking.
Wars are often about protecting oil supplies, or more crudely put, taking oil by treaty or by force. Or war is about taking land. Hitler in the Second World War taking land from Poles and Czechs, China taking land from Tibetans, Israel taking land from Palestinians. Thefts of land, like those of oil, are rationalized by calling on destiny or God or doing the victims a favor or forestalling violence or some other story that is made to sound reasonable, but at bottom theft is about theft. The land is stolen (think of US settlers taking land from for raw materials to be used for manufacture or food or honor or power or some other ostensibly desirable goal.
So war is about taking stuff and about making money off the stuff built to fight wars. The 1% who gain off all this arrange that the work of fighting wars—those who risk and often lose their lives in battles—is done by the 99%.
Why, though, should anyone risk life in order to enrich the 1%? Here is where patriotism and religion walk onto our stage of efforts to understand war. The 1% figure, through agents paid to work on their behalf, how to distract the attention of the 99% from the grotesquery of war and the “sacrifice” of life that sustains it, and from the 1% who make money off it and shift attention to patriotism and religion. Let’s call this “the ideologies of war,” that is to say the justifications for war that make killing and dying for the 1% palatable by not calling it that at all.
Instead of honesty about theft and profits, the 1% promote a very powerful if bizarre idea that the power and dignity of the nation or nation-state or tribe or city-state or whatever political unit, is more important than the power and dignity of the individual warrior, that the warrior kills and dies in order to ennoble and sanctify the larger political unit. So the individual warrior dies and their blood is part of the sacrament that allows the continued and eternal life of the state or kingdom, which embodies the lives and power and fortune of the 1%. So it is the 1% for whom the warrior dies, and the power and wealth interests of the 1% are thus disguised as patriotism, the eternal goodness of the kingdom or state.
There is another justification for war at least as powerful as patriotism: religion. Just as there are working on behalf of the 1% people who formulate the ideas of patriotism and dying for the glory of the 1% disguised as the eternal need for the kingdom or state, so there are other people who promote a different line of justification for war: it is demanded, sanctified, and blessed by a god or gods.
A graduate student who became a friend as well as a colleague had been a quarterback on his high school and religious college football teams. He told me that before a game, the coach would tell the players that God was on their side and wanted them to win. I asked my student whether it was likely that the other team’s coach gave his team the same uplifting message to motivate them to play as hard as they could to win the game. Of course, he said.
God is frequently invoked not only as a football fan but as a supporter of war. When the Jewish Zealots fought the more powerful occupying Roman Empire two thousand years ago, they apparently were sure God was on their side and would make certain the war ended in their favor. It did not turn out that way. The Crusades were organized by Christians who were certain God wanted them to cleanse the Holy Land of Muslims. On their way there they took out a lot of Jews too. In their wars with Palestinians, some Jews, Israeli and otherwise, claim God is on their side. Muslims sometimes too insist they make war on behalf of Allah who commands it.
Why a god or God who embodies love would command followers to kill is beyond my comprehension, but the point is not that God favors war or peace but that people who seek peace claim God as an ally, an inspiration, a booster, a coach, and people who prefer war claim God as an ally, an inspiration, a booster, a coach.
As all of this is rationalization not only for interests of the 1% although frequently that. It serves other purposes too. A leading one is that war is a classic outlet for anger that people have for dozens of reasons. No one can escape being hurt by others occasionally, humiliated, taken advantage of, ridiculed, and so on. A natural response to these experiences is anger against those who instigated them. That anger, carried to its logical and psychological extreme, becomes murder. The people whose actions lead to this kind of anger are usually known personally to its victims. They are family members, friends, neighbors, fellow workers, teachers, fellow students, employers. As their anger threatens to explode into violence, it is in their communities’ interests and especially the 1% who rely on the stability of communities, to defuse it.
There is a second kind of anger that threatens to destabilize a community. It is anger at social conditions one finds hateful but cannot affect. Racism, slavery, sexism, ridicule of disabled people, exploitation of workers by elites who pay them as little as possible and make huge profits off their work, instigators of war and climate change and pollution of the air and seas and land.
By possibly destabilizing society and its power structure, anger at individuals and social conditions endangers the rule and privileges of the 1%. They must find a way to defuse it. And they do. The 1% protects its turf and privileges by making sure anger is channeled away from those who set it in motion and directed instead to scapegoats, irrelevant but identified by gender or skin color or religion or language.
That deflection of anger from its real objects to false ones is a way of manipulating people’s emotions. The anger someone feels toward a boss cannot be expressed toward the boss without jeopardizing the person’s job. So the person returns home and deflects the anger from the boss onto the spouse. The spouse knows from experiences not to risk havoc by attacking the other spouse and so takes their anger out on a kid. The kid, fearing punishment if anger is directed at the parent takes it out on the family dog.
The major issue here is displacing anger from its real object onto substitute and cynically manufactured ones. Carried to its logical and psychological extreme, this means displacing anger from where it belongs on economic and political elites onto entire other populations where it does not belong.
The 1% includes women of course, but most of the movers and shakers in that population are men. Indeed, men have created most of the institutions of the world: capitalism, the nation-state, religions in their current forms, athletics, science, technology, education, urbanism, and love for all this. Males have also built and sustained racism, sexism, and all other forms of domination.
Men can also take credit for virtues like intelligence, determination, perseverance, loyalty, courage, strength. For thousand of years, it has been assumed that men—specifically white men—had a monopoly on those virtues. Patriarchy—the rule of the world by men—has been weakened by feminism in very striking ways. It is common for men to be insecure about their masculinity. Men are forever plagued by questions and doubts about whether they are “man enough,” are adequately rugged in build and demeanor, can act in ruthless and tough ways (especially in business, politics, and war) when expected and commanded to do so, can engage intercourse on a moment’s notice with any woman whatsoever, have no admitted sex problems or confusions, are natural athletes, and carry their bodies with confidence and strength that lead to certain kinds of stride and even swagger.
Men are discouraged from looking inward, from sensitivities to others’ emotions as well as their own, from revealing or even feeling compassion and gentleness and support and nurturance and softness and love outside their own immediate families. When men are permitted to feel close to other men, it is on sports teams, in battle, in drinking, and in boasting about whatever you can name.
One needed no more than the fingers of two hands to count the numbers of non-white people at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The others I saw mainly as whites often with angry, hurt, and sorrowful faces.
Something unprecedented has been happening in that part of the US population, and it appears to be unprecedented in the history of this country: significant numbers of men from the lower middle and working classes have taken to killing themselves with alcohol, drugs, and guns. Those decisions to end their lives need to be met with respect, concern, and compassion, but it has to be understood that the despair that leads to these suicides is not about African American, Latino, Muslims’, women’s, and GLBTQ efforts to be respected as full human beings.
Honor and respect are not zero-sum games, where if I have it you don’t, and if you have it I don’t. The point is not to take that all back to white males but to feel real concern and compassion for people who feel bypassed, displaced, shunted aside, by gains for others. We are not any of us safe until all of us are safe. We are none of us comfortable and secure in our good opinions about others until we are all comfortable and secure in our opinions about ourselves.
Donald Trump is not saying simply or only make America white again, he is saying make American dominantly male again. Trump carries ordinary masculinity to extremes. The virtue of decency and respect for others is turned into mocking them and hurling playground bully names at them. Any speck of modesty is transformed into self-promotion that could win an Olympics gold medal if there were a contest in that grotesque practice. It caricatures masculinity to pretend one has no doubts, no weaknesses, no problems, no failures in his life.
I know a guy who was asked in a job interview to name his weaknesses. He said he could not think of any. Trump would match that unaware response if asked.
Men are not going to take back patriarchy and cast women on to the floor again. A responsible leader helps men come to terms with what this historical change means to them and how to work with women to create a new idea of adulthood which celebrates gender equality and respect and gives a decent burial to all forms of domination including that of men over women.
- MOVING AHEAD: TO RECREATE THE WORLD OR DESTROY IT?
From bottom-line thinking to systemic thinking
The 1% have the option of continuing their profit-plunder of the planet or joining with the 99% to create a world whose highest purpose is ensuring decent lives for all humans and sustaining the integrity of our fragile planet. A grand alliance could join the resources and organizing talents of the 1% with the knowledge, experiences, work skills, and survival determination of the 99%.
Part of the shift from profit economics to human and planetary economics would be to set aside thinking in terms of products that make money to thinking of the best solutions to real and complex problems. Bottom-line thinking rests on the premise that making money off something is reason enough to create and promote it. Systemic thinking, by contrast, proceeds by defining a very large problem and figuring out the best solution from the viewpoint of contributing to social justice and sustaining human life, the lives of other species, and the health of our planet.
It is one thing to produce cars, buses, trains, and airplanes. It is quite another to think of transportation as a system. Auto companies want to sell as many cars as they can and do not ask what are the most efficient uses of resources to move people from one place to another. Mass transit is more cost-effective than private auto use. Both modes may be seen as desirable, but there is not a mass transit lobby to push the cause of people too poor to buy cars and people who prefer the environmental consequences of mass transportation over those of private autos.
Alternatives (or supplements, perhaps) to automobile travel have yet to be fully explored in the US. High speed rail, whether on the ground, under it, or above it, is a more efficient way to use fuel and the materials that go into transport vehicles than single drivers in single cars. So are trolleys and buses.
Imagine, too, jitney cabs. They might be driven by young people taking a year to support themselves in this way or by taxi drivers seeking a change in routine. City streets that are many miles long would be plied by these cars. Anyone could get on anywhere along the way and get off anywhere else. A standard price would be determined ($1? $2?) for all trips in a jitney cab, regardless of distance traveled.
Another method, proposed years ago, is highly computerized mini-buses, holding, say, 10-15 people. These would be programmed in such a way that a person wanting to make a trip from point A to point B would punch in the appropriate information and learn when vehicle would arrive whose other passengers and itinerary would accommodate that of the person seeking the ride.
A systemic approach to transportation would make bicycle travel as appealing as possible. Bikes are as close as we can get to a perfect vehicle. The energy driving the machine is neither fossil fuel, wind, nor sun. It is the body of the bicyclist who stands to gain in health while traveling from one place to another. As bike transportation requires little new infrastructure (bicycle lanes in some cities) and as bicycles can be fixed and maintained inexpensively, even by the owner (imagine school children learning rudiments of bicycle repair as part of their education about the finitude of resources and the pleasures of self help), encouraging mode of transportation (advertising, subsidies, contests for efficient design and best use of raw materials) would be inexpensive.
Still healthier than biking, for the systemic transportation planner, is perhaps the most vital mode of all forms of transportation often neglected in advanced industrial societies: walking. The only money to be made off this would be from selling footwear. Walking is a standard fitness exercise anyway. Walking for transportation rather than sport adds purpose to healthy pleasure.
Disclosure: several years ago, my wife and I decided for reasons both environmental and economic, to reduce our car usage from two to one. My car spent most of its time waiting at work for me to return home at night. It remained still between those two half hour trips. We are lucky that we live near a commuter train which takes me to my work and home again in under fifteen minutes each way. Add the twenty minute walk to and from the train stops and I wind up with an hour of transportation, which is exactly what it took to commute by car. An unexpected benefit is that walking to and from the commuter train has made me feel increasingly stronger and fit. I am assuming that the growing epidemic of type 2 diabetes may have something to do with too little exercise as well as too much eating. I note that money is made off too much eating. Far less is made off walking.
Under our current system, some of the 1% make huge profits off agri-business, supermarkets, fast food and all the transportation, packaging, and other businesses that are integral to the food industry. Making money any way they can from any parts of that chain of interlinked practices is, in their eyes, legitimate. Even though land can be seriously damaged by mono-cropping, even though ingesting lots of processed food, particularly “fast food,” can damage bodies seriously, even though moving food long distances makes far less sense than using as much locally produced food as possible—profit can be made every step along the way without regard for what is healthy for humans, other animals, and Earth itself.
Now put that familiar framework aside for a moment and consider what it would mean to meet food needs systemically. To the extent that I have traveled in other countries, I have never, in their restaurants, been served more food than I could or wanted to eat. Only in the United States is serving too much food somehow considered a virtue. Not atypically, my wife and I sometimes eat a few appetizers instead of an entrée, or one entrée and a salad, rather than order two full meals that will bring us more food that we care to eat. Surely the growing obesity problem in the US is partly a function of reluctance to define real limits in the amount of food it is reasonable to consume at one sitting. There are entire countries that could be pretty well fed by the food thrown away in the United States.
A systemic approach to food production and eating would include attention to nutrition. Even physicians who are trained to care for human bodies rarely know much if anything about how what we eat affects our health. Why not have schools, from kindergarten on, teach nutrition curricula that could be applied right in the school lunch room as well as at home and throughout the student’s life?
In other words, why don’t some of the people in the 1% turn their attention away from making still more money (which they really don’t need, except to impress others in their social class with their talent at making money) off food and take on the far more challenging task of how best to use land, water, seeds, and climate to maximize the production of food that is as healthy as it can possibly be and raised in ways consistent with maintaining or restoring health to a threatened planet. Wouldn’t this focus excite us all more than how to browbeat consumers into wanting gigantically sized and unhealthy hamburgers or learning how to resist that?
Many years ago, city planner Robert Goodman suggested that vast resources are wasted by the insurance industry. There could be far simpler and cheaper ways of organizing insurance were the point of it to see that everyone has adequate health coverage and that damaged cars and ruined homes would be compensated for without the gigantic industry currently in place to manage those affairs.
I recently had an experience that makes the sheer wastefulness of insurance companies painfully clear. Our car was sideswiped by another pulling out from a parking space. A month later, still before we managed to get the car to a body shop, someone hit an exact spot that had been damaged in the first accident. Our insurance company paid $30 a day for our rental car. After a full week in the body shop, the car had yet to be seen by an appraiser. The insurance company was paying daily car rental fees and we were paying for some extra insurance.
The car took about a week to fix. But the insurance company wanted a second appraiser, from a different appraising firm, to see the car, even though the damage had been repaired and there were only photos of the original damage. Day after day, the second appraiser did not visit the body shop. The costs of the rental car kept mounting. Each time I called the adjuster at the insurance office, he was busy. I left voice messages, but for over two weeks he did not reply.
Whenever I called the adjuster, I was shunted to some other person at the insurance office. Every day it was someone else. And with every call I had to explain the whole story all over again. Every person who heard it assured me that the problem was going to be solved that day. I put in huge amounts of time on these calls, and nothing came of them. Eventually I insisted on talking with a manager. I told him I was sick of the dragged out process and was thinking about suggesting auto insurance companies as a topic for investigative reporting in a major newspaper. At about that time, the body shop threatened to charge the insurance company a daily fee for storing a car which had long since been repaired. In all, the rental car was rented for an entire month while the repairs took only one week.
But that’s not the finale of this absurd story. The car rental agency called to tell me the insurance company refused to pay the last three days of the car rental, and I would be stuck with them. After about eight or ten more phone calls, half to the insurance office and half to the body shop, I managed to get this all straightened out and pay nothing for those last three days.
At the end, I was appalled at the excessive time and resources used and the stupidity of the whole system. Rather than wasting human time, paper forms, computer space, and phone calls deciding who is to pay exactly what, a rational insurance system would have one pile of money, paid into by all drivers, from which repair costs would be paid and car rentals during the repair period would be covered. Were this process managed by intelligent, thoughtful people, it would be a break-even operation. There is no need for people to profit as insurance companies do hugely, off auto accidents, fires, and illness.
Goodman raised the provocative question of what, if the insurance industry were made rational and reorganized to serve needs other than focusing overmuch on profit for investors, would happen to those gigantic insurance buildings that mark the landscapes of major cities throughout the country. They would no longer be needed by the insurance industry. (It can be noted that our insurance premiums in addition to contributing to large profits also pay for those skyscrapers which must be very expensive to build and maintain.)
Once they were emptied of the endless offices of people pushing vast amounts of paper and making decisions on who can and who cannot be compensated for health matters or flooded houses or damaged cars, what would it make sense to do with those huge edifices? Goodman observes that they have endless windows and plumbing. He suggests they be turned into vertical gardens or farms. They would be gigantic greenhouses producing fruits and vegetables for local use. All the tinkering with crops to allow them to travel with minimum damage and hold a long shelf life could be scrapped because travel and shelf life issues would disappear. The former insurance buildings would become the basis for year round farmers markets, with all the advantages of that system of food production and distribution. Sustainability rather than gigantic profits from often unhealthy foods raised in less than thoughtful ways would be the new order of the day.
There are more single family homes in this country than in any other. Vast amounts of water, seeds, and chemicals go into maintaining beautiful lawns that give aesthetic pleasure. But there is another way to look at all that land. Think of it as millions of arable acres before, beside, and behind those houses. Suppose apartment buildings with lawns and schools and other institutions and those millions of homes were to transform that greenery into gardens. Families would save money growing some of their own food, children and adults would learn how to grow crops, and the radical separation we suffer of humans from nature would be addressed head-on in a modest and productive way.
Our current health industry is not only organized around profits, it is also not organized to promote health as fully as it could. Health care in our country is based on treating the ill far more than on preventing sickness. Decades ago, health care became businessified, to coin a term. I remember when hospitals that at one time were modest structures with the facilities needed to do what the people working there did, became as swank as Miami Beach hotel lobbies and as posh as classy business skyscrapers. Why was so much money put into physical plant? I assume it is because great profits were made thereby.
It is not a state secret that rates of asthma among urban children are growing and that dirty urban air likely has something to do with that. Some attention has already been paid to cleaning up the air in cities. More still can be done. And how about water? And the effects on human and other animal bodies of pesticides as they work their way into the food chain and land and water supplies?
If food can be addressed systemically, it also intersects with health. For example, there is an argument that processed foods are less good for human bodies than unprocessed foods. When will the health and food industries get together to figure out the best practices in producing food for health rather than for profit?
If nutrition could be taught in schools, why not also attention to the human body: how it works, how it grows, what impedes its healthy growth and what facilitates it? Just as the classic book Our Bodies Ourselves has taught millions of women around the world how to demystify the nature and workings of the female body, so could corresponding materials be produced for men, adolescents, and children to learn, in age-appropriate ways, about their bodies. Children would study nutrition, exercise, and graceful movement in walking, dancing, and sports. Among the advantages of this systemic integration of body knowledge into education would be that understanding sex would arise naturally as part of the study of the human body, rather than as a daring, frightening, or otherwise contentious topic.
As long as people eat fish, it has to be in their interests that the seas are not contaminated. But they are. Systemic approaches to preventing illness here too merge with systemic approaches to improving the food supply. Just as technology figures out processes that have wound up polluting the oceans, so can technology figure out how to end those processes and return the oceans to health.
Were the practice of medicine primarily preventive, it would systemically need to pay greater attention than it does now to the relation of stress to physical illness and emotional illness. While I am among countless people grateful for medications that relieve the anguish of anxiety, depression, insomnia, and many other painful conditions, it would make sense to examine in great detail the ways our institutions, including the economy, family, schools, religion, business, government, sport, entertainment, and others operate so as to affect people’s bodies and emotions in ways not good for them. The goal would be not so much to treat painful conditions once they appear as to keep them from arising in the first place.
I am not suggesting aspiring to pain-free lives. That is not possible or even desirable. The point is rather to figure out how to remove the excessive suffering that comes from unemployment, homelessness, overly intense competition, pressures to achieve for the sake of impressing others rather than for intrinsic pleasure, and still more.
Systemic health would concentrate on helping people feel grace and sensuous pleasure in their bodies, whether in sport, sex, or simply walking down the street. The tradition of viewing the body as dangerous, dirty, suspect, or evil would give way to recognizing that every human has the right to pleasure in their bodies just as do dancers and athletes, part of whose fascination for us does indeed, I believe, lie in our admiration for their physical grace, strength, and confidence. We can all have our own versions of those virtues, but that would require a health care system that defines body pleasure as a very high priority.
These are but a few thoughts about what it would mean to think about transportation, food, and health systemically. Again, this means shifting from profit as the primary focus to the well being of humans and our planet as the center of our thinking and actions.
FROM NATIONAL SECURITY TO COMMON SECURITY
There are several ways the 99% can move along the human project past war and past the profit economy and into the human and planetary economy. Begin with our understandable concerns with security.
The move from national security to common security
The nation-state itself, and wars fought to protect it, is defined as the basic unit of political identification and loyalty in life. That means that nation-states are assumed to be dangerous to other nation-states. The nation-state, it is assumed, has to be armed to defend against possible attacks from other nation-states.
Publics are persuaded to accept this system as rational by means of patriotism, which means celebrating the uniqueness of the nation-state and its implied superiority to other nation-states. Publics are also persuaded of dangers by politicians who find themselves best able to gain office and remain there by inventing fears of invasion and catastrophe.
All of this makes sense if we are stuck with nation-states as always potential enemies and attackers. But suppose this assumption is wrong. Suppose there is an alternative to “national security.” What if instead of nations arming themselves to the teeth against possible conflicts with other nations, we planted seeds of “common security,” the goal of which would not be defeating feared other nations but rather creating conditions where all nations work for the safety and security of all nations. None of us is safe, it is often said in my field of peace studies, until all of us are safe. It is not hard to figure out the logic of that claim.
Consider fuel. Wars have been fought to make sure one nation was able to steal the oil of another. In 1951, Iranians voted in as their leader Mohammed Mossadegh under whose leadership the Iranian parliament nationalized oil so as to have Iran, where the oil was located, enjoy the profits of its oil rather than their being carted off to England by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC, currently known as British Petroleum, or BP). Britain did not like losing its huge overseas operation and the profits therefrom and prevailed upon the United States to overthrow the democratically elected Iranian leader in 1953 and install in his place the long-hated Shah of Iran, from an old elite family and regime.
Had the United States told Britain No, we will not mess with a democratically elected government in the Middle East, it is quite likely that other countries in the area would have had democratic elections of their own. But oil interests, including those of the United States, persuaded our government to help dictators gain power and stay there so as to make it easy for foreign investors to get rich off oil that enriches oil countries’ elites working hand-in-hand with foreign oil companies and the US government. The cynical and ruthless manipulations of oil and governments in the Middle East (and not only there) is one of the bloodiest chapters in the history of nation-states and warfare. Indeed, the one business that is probably responsible for more war deaths than any other in history is the oil industry. (It is remarkable, is it not, that this same industry has wreaked havoc on the entire world by keeping secret the enormous climate change damage now well under way, which oil has seen coming for twenty years. Thus note that as in the case of the well-being of Middle Eastern populations in oil-rich states, profit overrode every other consideration, even the health of our planet itself.)
Understanding the difference between national security—trying to make a nation-state stronger than others—and common security—making all nation-states and peoples safe for everyone—is to comprehend how to end politically invented fears and how to free up war resources for the benefit of everyone. Not “my nation secure against yours” but rather “nations’ secure together, all with each other.
Behind the practice of nation-states competing to get as much as they can from others (land, oil, food, gold) is the assumption of scarcity of resources and making every effort to gain as much as possible for one’s own side by force at the expense of others.
This is called protecting “national interest,” which is assumed to conflict with other “national interests.” The way out of this slimy cave that stinks of death is to favor “common interests” above “national interests.” If we all have interests in eating adequately, then any nation’s problem is not how to gain as much food as it can at others’ expense but to devise a system that applies human ingenuity and wisdom to distributing food fairly around the world.
Specialists in theft and war would give way to specialists in common survival and sustainability. They would apply their intelligence to abandoning the cruel ways of producing, competing, distributing, and warring and in their place honor the dignity and rights of all people.
You think this is pie in the sky, that it’s “unrealistic,” or “idealistic” (ponder how this word has become a term of contempt rather than desire), “childish,” do you? So what, by contrast, is real, adult, possible? War? Global warming? Easy access to firearms that kill? Is the idea of peace absurd and the idea of war sound? When did the US last win a war of any consequence (hint, it’s a year between 1944 and 1946)? What has been the point of US led wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere? Hundreds of thousands of deaths and even more injured than that, refugees in the hundreds of thousands, cities and towns destroyed, landscapes devastated, hope and life burnt out in countless civilian and military survivors. Huge numbers of suicides, drug addicts, alcoholics among veterans. For what? Profit for war industries. Is that okay with you?
The seas rise and will drown island nations and many coastal cities. For what? Weather patterns throughout our planet will continue to worsen and be increasingly destructive. All this stems from high profit for fossil fuel industries. Is that okay with you?
The US spends more more money per person on health care than does any other country, and our health care system in not ranked anywhere near the top. For what? Profit for Big Pharma, insurance companies, builders of hospitals grander than they need to be. Is that okay with you?
Bridges collapse throughout the US, pipes rot allowing water to poison citizens, potholes proliferate. A century ago when all this was built, few anticipated that pipes and bridges and roads and the like would eventually need updating and replacing. Investors can make more money elsewhere, so the hell with the infrastructure. Is that okay with you?
Our school buildings are often inadequate, our school systems fail to educate countless students, teachers burn out and leave education. Why? Profits are not good except in profit-making charter schools and they often are not very good at all. Is this okay with you?
This, the richest country on earth, doesn’t have adequate housing for everybody. We could, but no one has yet figured out how to make huge profits off housing that is not for the very rich and near rich. Is that okay with you?
Guns proliferate and so do their use in growing numbers of homicides (some of them mass killings) and suicides. The NRA continues to insist that Congress not allow the Centers for Disease Control to study firearms killings. The more killings there are—individual and mass—the more guns are sold. Big profits for the gun industry override respect for human life. Is that okay with you?
In strikingly different ways, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump appealed to millions upon millions of profoundly disillusioned, discontented, angry people. Sanders did this by bringing people’s attention to the corporations and banks (He put it in terms of millionaires and billionaires) who are in fact responsible for taking jobs overseas; polluting air, land, and water; promoting climate change to keep fossil fuel profits high; and for making the super-rich far richer than they have ever been, at the expense of almost all the 7 billion people on our planet. Is that okay with you?
In some ironic way, Donald Trump appealed to the same disillusionment, discontent, and anger, but he did it manipulatively and dishonestly, by keeping his listeners’ attention off the profound destructiveness of corporations (millionaires, billionaires) and displacing it onto innocent Muslims, Mexicans, women, disabled people, and anybody else Trump could invite angry audiences to join him in mocking and scorning.
It is up to you (or to be more accurate: us), the 99%, to recognize the real causes of climate change and unemployment and to reject the vicious scapegoating of immigrants and anyone else Donald Trump can hate and humiliate before his audiences. Whether knowingly or not, Trump actually plays into the interests of his fellow 1%’ers by taking your attention off the real issues (jobs flowing overseas from this country has nothing to do with immigrants and everything to do with the 1%’s bottom line).
It is not hate that brings a better world, it’s love, and you know it. It’s the frantic one percenters who live terrified of being yanked off the piles of corpses and dollars that comprise the hills they live on who deny the possibility of friendship, real collaboration, and love.
Several hundred years ago, capitalism began to reorganize the feudal world into nation-states and successfully shifted focus from religion and nationality to manufacture, trade, and money, with the nation-state (Holland, Britain, Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, and later the United States) the major political embodiments of the new world order.
Imperialism and colonialism flourished. Slavery and other forms of exploitation of human labor made small numbers of people very rich off the sweat, misery, and degradation of very large numbers of people. From this process came production such as had not been possible before the invention of capitalism, and wealth from manufacture, trade, and exploitation of resources, labor, and land on continents other than Europe.
All that amazing development brought abundance for a minority of people on our planet and suffering and scarcity for the rest. The potential of a decent life for everyone was growing, but capitalism seemed incapable of realizing a fair distribution of goods and services for the majority of the 99%.
It is that circumstance that underlay Karl Marx’s efforts to understand what capitalism had been and what it was becoming during the nineteenth century. He saw that the drive for profit above everything else brought fantastic creativity and production beyond anything before in human history. And he saw that at the same time, capitalism created most humans’ estrangement from meaning in work, from pleasure in relating to fellow humans, from enjoying nature, and even from feeling at ease with themselves. The goal of socialism, as Marx conceived it, was to sustain the abundance made possible by capitalism and to transform it into bountiful goods, services, and fulfillment of potentials for everybody.
The Soviet revolution ostensibly was an effort to realize Marx’s vision of a liberatory stage of civilization that would surpass and transform capitalism. But for reasons of opposition from outside and amazing misunderstanding of Marx (he warned that Russia must not try to get to socialism before it had fully developed capitalism, which it had not achieved at the time of the Soviet revolution), shortsightedness, and corruption inside, the socialist alternative to capitalism, as the USSR claimed to practice it, was a disaster.
By then the world had devolved in a grotesque and costly race between the capitalist way of the west and the so-called socialist way of the Soviet Union. Eventually, the Soviet Union lost the competition, and there was but one power remaining to declare its victory at last over what it saw as the gigantic threat to it.
The triumph of capitalism, though, had barely been announced before it began collapsing into a caricature of itself: the super rich were becoming richer, just about everyone else was becoming poorer, globalization—a very complex system that allows grasping the potential unity of the world but in practice being a reworking of imperialism and colonialism so that the rich countries continue to exploit the others in terms of cheap prices for raw materials, low wages for workers, and forced markets for Western made products. Faith in the capitalist system was undercut by this and by economic crises—one serious recession after another—which unemployed vast numbers of people and allowed the very rich in many countries to promote “austerity,” which includes dismantling social programs meant to take care, at least somewhat, of people who had not made it into the 1% and were not going to get there.
As the Soviet system collapsed and the failed underside of the capitalist alternative became increasingly exposed, two meaning systems that had grabbed millions of people’s attention and loyalties for a century or more withered, leaving a huge vacuum of meaning to be filled by some other meaning system or systems.
It is at this point in history—really only in the last thirty or forty years—that the two major meaning systems that preceded capitalism and the brief Soviet alternative—nationality and religion—reasserted themselves. In the United States and large parts of the third world, Christian fundamentalism, with its insistence on only one acceptable religious way and an imminent reappearance of a Messiah who would bring an end to strife and a reign of peace and justice on earth emerged as rarely tolerant of other ways of seeing the world. It tried, not very successfully, to end the Constitutionally mandated separation of religion and state and to impose prudish concepts and standards of sexual behavior on an entire nation.
In recent decades, Jewish religious fundamentalism has wreaked havoc with the original Zionist project of survival of a people battered and beaten beyond belief by the Nazis. Economic development, secular and universal humanism, respect for science and systematic thought were submerged into reassertions of religious mysticism that had been somewhat sidelined in late nineteenth and twentieth century Western Jewish history.
In the Muslim world, increasingly aware of its abuse, mockery, and exploitation by Christian and Jewish worlds, a very vocal minority increased its commitment to fundamentalist concepts of Islam and renewed, in some parts of Islam, determination to make the entire world Muslim. At the extreme this tendency became the reactionary vision of an Islamic reign (caliphate) that would in the most brutal, violent, and grotesque ways, force submission to Islam upon the rest of the world. The West decided to fight to destroy this tendency in Islam rather than face and take responsibility for creating conditions to which the Islamic state concept was a logical if hideous reaction.
In deliberately secular India, romanticized and violent directions in Hinduism took hold in increasing intolerance of Islam. All the while these increasingly reactionary pushes were taking over the major religions of the world, ethnic and national identities were also reasserting themselves strongly. In the name of majority Chinese (Han) superiority, China has subdued Tibet and nearly two dozen other ethnic minorities within its borders. Identities celebrating being Irish or Scottish or German or French or Italian or Basque or Catalan or Ukrainian have grown even stronger and more strident than before in helping people identify who they are and who are their most fully recognizable fellow human beings.
Religion and nationality are increasingly common identity markers now, and they do not resist tendencies to set peoples against each other in classic old adversarial ways. So we have moved from the identity markers of capitalism—weakening as it shows itself apparently incapable of facing climate change, income inequality, and the waste and degradation of our planet—and Soviet or Chinese socialism, now both dead, to religion and ethnicity. These are regressive, reactionary moves and appear to be generating more and more violence (although not in the form of wars that characterized capitalist and “socialist” world orders) in the world in the form of small-scale violence (think of these as “micro-wars” compared with “macro-wars” that marked the twentieth century) between nation-states but primarily within them. Weapons manufacturers and traders become incredibly rich, and gun manufacturers, particularly in the United States, make huge profits off encouraging and celebrating death.
The 1%, for all this, are not bad people, and they are not evil. I find it fully understandable that they cannot think past power, wealth, and privilege to a world of plenty and respect and love they could help bring about. With you. It is up to all of us to figure out how to move away from the continuing destructiveness of adversarialism—of seeing and fearing enemies everywhere—and creating out of soil, water, air, and our own hearts and minds, souls, and good intentions, a world of “mutuality,” where enjoyment in shared growth and survival trumps hatred, pettiness, insecurity, and vindictiveness. Our task is to trump Trump and the hate and vindictiveness he represents. We can.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE?
Recognizing and celebrating a new global identity
Until now, people have found their primary meaning in identifying with religions, nationalities, nation-states, and political and economic systems opposed to other religions, nationalities, nation-states and political and economic systems. We as a species are on the threshold of creating a new human identity that can combine and celebrate all the others: the identity of citizen of planet Earth. I remain an American, a white, a man, and so on but at the same time I see my most fundamental identity as a member of a species that needs from now on to work together to transform our ways of relating to each other from paranoia, fear, and hate, to acceptance, understanding, and love and at the same time to understand and save and improve our planet.
It is now time to move from seeking power over other people and nature to finding power with each other—all of us—and with nature itself. We can adopt a new identity not to replace our familiar ones but to supplement them.
Our new marker of identity—which we need for survival’s sake—is that of citizen of the planet Earth. This allows us to continue, if we wish, to identify in terms of gender, skin color, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, and social class; but to survive we need to add a new identity to be shared by all of us. That is to identify ourselves as change agents on our planet, people who learn the skills to bring people together in working collectively for our mutual survival and pleasure. This includes healing our planet tragically damaged by ignorance and frightened indifference to its vulnerabilities and needs for healing.
Organizing a new and massive movement to end war
Useful social change, like those four gigantic movements of the second half of the twentieth century, succeed because they are organized from below, from the grass roots. The time is ripe for a movement in every country on earth that has a military—which is about 95% of them—to challenge war planning, war spending, and war itself. The money that goes into all that is wasted money whose main outcome is profit for those who manufacture and sell the implements of war, that plus cleaning up after massive numbers of deaths and enormous devastation of cities, countries, and nature itself.
It is unrealistic to continue war because nothing good comes from it. It is realistic, by comparison, to demand that monies wasted on war planning and war itself be shifted to rebuilding infrastructure, providing adequate housing for everyone, making higher education free, improving health care systems to meet the standards and accomplishments of the most successful ones in the world, and restoring as much as possible of the health and integrity of nature so badly mangled by profit-making fossil fuel industries, agribusiness, and other distractions from health and vitality and meeting real human needs.
I imagine movements in every country with a military to cut military spending in half within a three year period and cut what remains in half again during the next three year cycle. Let militaries base themselves on defense only and then shrink themselves out of existence when war finally comes to an end altogether. As this will take one or more generations still, defensive military preparations will be necessary until the conditions that sustain war are phased out permanently.
I imagine the heroism and sacrifice associated with war to be transformed into the heroism of resisting calls to end conflicts violently and the sacrifice of old ideas of manhood as combative to new ideas of manhood as cooperative and strong in mastering the elements of sustainability and survival itself.
A couple thousand years ago a Jewish sage named Hillel asked three questions we can see as urgent today: If not I am for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when? A few years back, the American poet Adrienne Rich added a fourth question: If not with others, how? And I add a fifth question (although I am not the first to think of it): If not us, who?
(Artwork: Pieter Cornelis “Piet” Mondrian (Dutch, 1872-1944) Tableau I 1921)