Friday, July 15, 2016

Radical Upheavals in the 60s and Since: Illusion and Reality




Radical Upheavals in the Sixties and Since: Illusion and Reality

By:  Langdon Winner

[A talk given at the Conference on Politics without Illusion, Revolution Without Violence, International Jacques Ellul Society, Berkeley July 6, 2016]

Today we often hear news that someone has been “radicalized on the Internet.”  Well, I was radicalized in Berkeley during the Sixties. 

My comments today are the reflections of one who graduated from The University of California 50 years ago.  The focusing lens for my remarks is Jacques Ellul’s work The Political Illusion.

As I prepared this talk, I thought, well, I certainly must read the book again and compare my response now to what I could remember about my impressions back then.  I went to my library was pleased to find the very copy of The Political Illusion I’d read in summer of 1967.  It was filled with extensive marginal notes, ones that revealed what I was thinking as I struggled with Ellul’s unsettling challenge.

At the time I was living in Washington D.C. -- a long haired Bay Area hippie, U.C. political science grad student, anti-Vietnam war demonstrator, frequent presence at psychedelic rock concerts, and also a student intern in the Pentagon working in the office of Army Chief of Information, i.e. Propaganda.  Back then a profile of that kind was called “heightening the contradictions.” 

Going through the pages of my old copy of The Political Illusion this spring, I was interested to see that many of my jottings were written in the characteristic dialect of the time.  For example, in the chapter on “The Necessary and The Ephemeral,” Ellul argues, “How can people fail to see that liberty requires integration into a continuity, a genuine basis in reality obtained in very different ways than through ‘information.’  As radical as it may appear, I am not afraid …to claim that a man who reads his paper every day is certainly not a free person.” 

Next to that passage young Langdon had written:  “Ellul is far out!”

Actually, two of his earlier books published in the U.S.– The Technological Society and Propaganda – had already made a deep impression on me.  The Technological Society was ultimately the work that paved the road from my study of conventional political theory to a lifelong engagement with questions about technology and politics.  More than anything else, Ellul’s writing helped give me the courage to move beyond the pale progress talk that that filled scholarly writings in the social sciences and humanities during that period.

Reading The Political Illusion now as well and reviewing my marginal notes, its clear that the book was in its basic features fully in tune with the temper the time.   Among the general upheavals of Berkeley in the Sixties were  the Civil Rights movement, the Free Speech Movement, anti-Vietnam War movement, student revolt, rise of the hippies with all the music, ideas and cultural trappings involved, arrival of the Black Panthers, along with the early rumblings of the ecology movement, feminist movement, movement of people with disabilities, as well as surfacing of the LGBTQ community. 

In many ways questions posed in The Political Illusion were central to concerns of that decade.  The political crucible of the New Left stoked widespread desire to explore and develop new modes of politics, community and citizenship beyond the dreary formats of the two party system and the deeply conflicted agendas of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society’.  In its basic themes, Ellul’s book was definitely in the zone.

This is not to say that the book was a favorite among new left activists.   Other key writings of the period, C. Wright Mills The Power Elite, Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man and Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd attracted a much broader audience.  My guess as to why The Political Illusion did not “catch on,” as it were, was that it staunchly refused to offer simple answers to the questions it posed and the criticisms it launched.  Above all did not offer a clear radical or utopian vision to help people of the time resolve the issues they faced or believed they faced.  The insistent flow of Ellul’s book carries the reader in directions that are not easily packaged as a program, a movement or a clear road map for building a better society.   Indeed, many of his arguments strongly suggest that measures favored by young activists were not only bound to fail, but actually mirror the very evils they were railing against.  In that sense, The Political Illusion was perhaps more radical in its understanding of politics and society than radicals of the day could handle.

For example, a common feature of student uprisings on college campuses at the time was to seek the validation of television in the struggles of the day.  “The whole world is watching” was a common chant and, in fact, demonstrators in Sproul Plaza would often leave the day’s battle with campus cops and administrators to go back to their apartments and watch themselves on TV.  Using the media to spread images of protest would, many of us believed, would alter people to the problems at hand and move public opinion in favorable directions.  And there was always “Hey, there I am on the screen!” response, a sure sign that one’s own role was highly significant.   Of course, a key argument in Elull’s book is that action that seeks confirmation in information systems or in waves of public opinion is futile to its core and tends simply to reinforce patterns of state power, a lesson perhaps even more painfully evident today than in the Sixties. 

Looking back on the evidence from my own jottings, I am reminded that despite its relative lack of significance as a text for the student movement, The Political Illusion was significant within another domain of my political education .  Much of the substance of the discussion is Ellul’s commentary on twentieth century European and American social science, the very stuff I was studying in my seminars and preparation for doctoral qualifying exams.  It happens that Ellul had closely followed the prominent works in sociology, political science, psychology, communications studies, and the like.  But what he took away from the various theories and empirical findings was usually far removed from what the authors intended.

Much social scientific research in the post World War II decades sought to show how the volatilities of mass society and the excesses of fascism and communism that had erupted earlier in the century, could now be avoided, replaced by reasonable, well-grounded forms of democratic politics and government.  Equipped with new knowledge and new technique, modern institutions would produce wonders of stability, rationality, and responsiveness.  That was the prevailing view.

Without distorting the conceptual or empirical foundations of  studies in this genre, Ellul argues that a deeper understanding of the classics twentieth century social science reveals  varieties of domination, oppression and disconnection from reality that emerge within the newly refurbished institutions of political society.  In much the same way that Marx claimed to have turned “Hegel on his head,” Ellul takes the corpus of mid twentieth century social science research and turns it on its head, revealing not the realm of enlightenment and progress its writers hoped to reveal, but a kind of twilight zone in which benighted souls wander helplessly in search of meaning, happiness and security.

In political science at that the time a key quest was to shed light on pluralist forms modern democracy, ones based upon economic, social and cultural interest groups engaged in the push and pull of electoral outcomes and intricate negotiations of policy shaping.   Distinctly American versions of the story, the Yale School of political science for example, welcomed the structures and dynamics of late twentieth century political society as the maturation of democracy, an accomplishment enriched by supportive environs of electronic media, social psychology, public relations, methods of opinion polling, and improved practices in public administration.  

Within the lively interactions of key interest groups and voting blocks in political pluralism, conflict would happen in ways that produced sensible accommodation achieved through graduated incrementalism.  With increasingly thorougy penetration of society by radio and television, there would arise a public much better informed about public affairs.
And within legislatures and bureaucracies leaven by the refined methods of social science, intelligent, well-balanced policy outcomes were assured.  

For many of us studying politics and sociology during the 1960s this tidy picture of political pluralism was notable for what it left out.  At the top of our list of qualms was the almost total absence of any role for citizenship in the various models of democracy widely heralded as cutting edge political science.  “Doesn’t democracy have to do with self-governance?” we asked.  Where in this picture are citizen participation and genuine political freedom?

While some of our faculty mentors found such questions interesting, a many of them were outraged at their students effrontery.  “Don’t you understand?” they would say.  “The well developed patterns of structure and process we’ve described are what mature, representative democracy is all about.”

Nevertheless, among a good number of undergrad and grad students, the feeling grew that the pungent criticisms of  Students for a Democratic Society about participatory democracy and social justice were more to the point.  
What kind of democracy is it that excludes the vital, authentic unscripted political activity of everyday people?

Entirely similar concerns are central to Ellul’s critique of the social scientists.  Within their rigor he detected a good amount of mortis.   Thus, his chapter on “Participation” takes note of the ways in which leading social scientists of the day were busily advocating principles quite far removed from genuine democracy.  One writer he finds especially noteworthy is Seymour Martin Lipset, U.C. Berkeley sociologist, author of the acclaimed book Political Man and a formidable presence on the Berkeley campus during the Sixties.  Ellul had obviously read the man’s work and summarizes its position succinctly.

“There still remains Seymour Martin Lipset’s theory; a group of associations of oligarchic character contributes to maintaining democracy.  For society to be democratic, it is not necessary that the democratic rule be applied inside the organisms that constitute it.  Unions, for example, represent the general interest of their members, who do better by joining unions than by remaining at the mercy of industry) … all the associations combined represent the divergent interests of all society; whereas every one of these associations limits the individual’s freedom, it gives the leaders a much greater real freedom.” 

At that point Ellul offers a wry comment.  “This conception of democracy is really very touching, for it literally reproduces the description of feudal society.” 

(Oh, my!)

Throughout ongoing series of commentaries in this vein, Ellul gently rips apart many of the central ideas and arguments of the disciplines.  To use a legal metaphor, his careful rendering of social scientists’ own apologies for the condition of contemporary democracy amounts to using the best evidence for the defense as the center of a pungent argument for the prosecution.   The thrust of Ellul’s position is that what are ostensibly open, democratic institutions achieve a certain “political autonomy” that makes them unrepresentative and unresponsive to the needs of the populace.  His concept of “autonomy” here means that key institutions of decision-making and administration have become things unto themselves with internal dynamics of their own.  Organizations both within and around the modern are tightly closed, largely immune to any outside influence, especially that of lowly everyday citizens.

How do these matters look today?  Even a quick scan of our politics shows the substance of Ellul’s mid-century warnings confirmed in at least two important ways.  First, one can note the rigorous, data driven analyses of leading political scientists.  Deploying state of the art quantitative methods, Martin Gillens and Benjamin Page have demonstrated that the preferences of middle and low income people in the U.S. have no influence in actual policy making.  Zero, nada, zilch!   What matters in actual practice are only the preferences of the rich, the top socio-economic layers of political society.  That’s what the surveys and analyses clearly demonstrate.  As Gillens and Page summarize the implications of their massive study, they carefully conclude: “America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”  (That about says it.)

A second way in which Ellul’s misgivings are now confirmed is evident in a number of prominent political eruptions in the U.S. and Europe where grievances about entrench oligarchy have become a common rallying cry.  The Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011 and 2012 -- as well as the revolt of the indignatos in Spain that preceded them – were outbreaks of widespread unrest.  More recently the themes of Bernie Sanders presidential campaign of 2016 have carried awareness of oligarchy and its grim consequences for jobs, income, health care, education, pervasive inequality, and student debt onto center stage of American politics.  Senator Sanders and his followers are convinced that the U.S. needs nothing less than “a political revolution.”

In somewhat similar respects, Donald Trump’s campaign, with all its bigotry, racism and xenophobia, appeals to millions of people who feel the system isn’t working for them.  Reports on about rapidly widening gaps of inequality in wealth and income in the U.S.A. are now common in print, television and Internet political commentaries.  Looking across the Atlantic, especially the recent Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, one finds the widespread conviction that distant, unresponsive, self-interested bureaucrats in Brussels have lost touch with the needs and desires of everyday people and serve only the interests of bankers and billionaires.   As we observe these signs of an unhappy, restless populations, Ellul’s diagnoses of the maladies modern political society seem not only confirmed, but increasingly prophetic.

The question in America right now is whether voters will again buy the threadbare neoliberal canard that technological innovation and renewed economic growth automatically will automatically generate a better way of life?  Or will people rise in revolt as they realize that promises of this kind are an illusion propagated by cloistered, self-interested elites in Wall Street, Washington and Silicon Valley?  As people ponder the economic, technological, ideological, and political landscape that confronts them these days, a good many of them are eager to say, “Frankly, we’re not buying it.”  Much of the energy of politics in 2016 involves eruptions of this kind, a disturbing genie that politicians, businessmen and figures in the corporate media now frantically struggle to put back in the bottle.   In the current issue of the Atlantic, there is a long article by Jonathan Rauch lamenting the fact that the people have lost faith in “the political class.”  His essay along with a recent pieces by Andrew Sullivan argue that today the problem is, sad to say, too much democracy. 

Looking back to the 1960s, its possible that concerns in Ellul’s Political Illusion had less affinity with the specific agendas of the New Left than with those of another movement brewing at the time, one that eventually came to be known as “the counter-culture.” Resonance of this kind can be found throughout the book.  A particularly revealing passage is one in which Ellul’s argues that theory of economic alienation in Marx along with remedies of economic democracy proposed on the Left no longer describe a much deeper predicament that faces humanity.  The economic, political, technological, informational order that envelops social life infects people’s very souls and neutralizes their best inclinations, their ability to think and act in meaningful ways.  He writes, “Now the problem is for the powers that be … to possess man internally, to organize fake appearances of liberty resting on fundamental alienation, …  to fabricate false appearances of personality resting on integration and radical massification.”  

If those words had been sung with suitable guitar feedback at Filmore Auditorium concert in the late 1960s, we hippies might have exclaimed, “Oh wow, man, that’s so heavy…”

It’s true that Ellul does not go so far as to advocate out mass revolt against ways of living built on materialism, consumerism, conformity and a hollow happiness, but his book suggests that an uprising of that sort would be fully justified.  His brief comments throughout the book, especially the chapter on “Man and Democracy” offer the outlines of what an appropriate response would be.

He insists that any aware, thoughtful person needs to step outside the stagnant oppressive economic, political and technological milieu that claims one’s being and to begin life anew.  The problems in modern politics are far deeper, more systematic than any obvious malfunctions in governance.  One must find ways to reclaim and revitalize one’s basic humanity and restore the manifold promise of social relationships.

When I first read Ellul’s advice in the 1960s what stood out was what I took to be its tone of stern, elevated, moral, individualism.  Some of my marginal notes suggest that I found the book rather cloying, something of a “downer.”  More appealing were the writings, songs, and festivals that held out the promise of a happy community – “peace, love and good vibes” --  Ecotopia perhaps.  On my reading of his words this spring, however, I noticed what the younger me had missed: Ellul’s insistence that a genuinely democratic politics must engage the classic question: How are we to live together? 

Steps toward that end, in his view, begin with the identification and open discussion of what he calls “tensions” in society, ones that divide people one from another and yet offer a opportunities for dialog, mutual respect and common action.  Instances of significant tension from earlier periods of history include the tension between church and state, between the bourgeoisie and laboring people.  He implies that people today would have to identify significant tensions of the present day, points of “differentiation” and possible contention within the sphere of inter-personal relationships.  Involved here would be concerted effort to rescue the powers of language and reason from the toxic fog that surrounds the  technological systems and mass media of the modern state.

He writes, “The common measures of what we have to say to one another and of what makes communication possible, of what we jointly have to live for … must be constantly rediscovered and recreated.”

“We must understand that democracy is always infinitely precarious and mortally endangered by every new progress.  It must be forever started again, rethought, reconstructed, begun again.”

What Jacques Ellul offers, then, is a very stern challenge, one that sets a very high bar for the attainment of anything remotely resembling a democratic way of life.  He is not especially optimistic that his generation or any later ones will be able to realize it.  Unlike the comforting nostrums offered by politicians and social scientists, he depicts democracy as something extremely difficult to attain, something often advertised but seldom realized, something extremely fragile and always subject to abuse.

He writes: “If man were left to himself -- his inclinations, his responsibilities, his personal choices, on his own level, without systematic influence, propaganda, “human relations,” group dynamics, obligatory information, directed leisure, then slowly, humbly, modestly, democracy might perhaps be born.” To which he adds: “But how newborn, how weak and fragile it would be!”

* * * * * * * *

To conclude, I want to add a brief historical coda.  Our meeting takes place in the Heyns Room, named for Roger Heyns, Chancellor of U.C. Berkeley during the late 1960s.  He is perhaps best know for his opposition to the peaceful occupation by students and towns people of People’s Park, a plot of land south of campus, still there, that the university had slated for development as an apartment complex.

At the climax of a series of tumultuous events in May 1969 Governor Ronald Reagan called in the police to remove the occupiers.  At that moment Chancellor Heyns, bless his heart, abruptly skipped town, leaving the protesters to face a barrage of shotgun bullets that killed one man, blinded another and sent scores to the hospital. 

The demonstrations (in which I participated) ended with the first and only aerial attack on a civilian population in American history, tear gas spread over the campus by a helicopter.  A photo of that event appears on the Ellul Society’s web page for this meeting.

I mention this story to indicate how even a place of scholarly gathering and quiet reflection like this on can bear the stain of the kinds oppression that Ellul’s book so eloquently describes, forms of power and violence that confront us to this day.  

Peace be with you.







Friday, November 13, 2015

Thoughts on Operation Wetback


                           Migrant farm workers, many of them "braceros," from the 1940s
                             (Getty images)

A story, "Operation Wetback, the 1950s immigration policy Donald Trump loves," in Vox, brought back some vivid memories. 

As a central coastal California native, the presence of "migrant workers" was a fact of my childhood.  During the worst winter storms, our church in San Luis Obispo would gather and deliver canned goods and other necessities for workers who couldn't go to the flooded fields to earn a living.  Yes, the mood was that of charity and pity, but it also contained an element of respect for people who have to do society's hardest labor.  Seeing first hand how the workers lived made a deep impression on me.  I  was fortunate as well to have parents who stressed a simple message of human equality.  An often repeated phrase around our house was, "You're no better than anybody else, and nobody is any better than you!" 

Much later when I was in graduate school in the middle 1960s, a friend and I made a tourist visit to Mexico.  At the Tijuana border we stood in line and struck up a conversation with a friendly "bracero" in his late 30s who told us about his work back and forth across the border, about his family and community.  As we moved to the Mexican side of the border we two long haired "hippies" were approached by police who started some aggressive questioning. "You've come for the drugs, si?"  


At that point the bracero just behind us stepped forward and firmly let it be known that this approach was not acceptable.  "They're friends of mine," he said.  The police relented.  On the train south we talked with the man further and he invited us to visit his village, Juanocitlan (sp?), when we ultimately reached Guadalajara. So we took the long bus ride into the hills, stayed in his home a couple of days, met his wife, kids, extended family and many people in the village.  Today, it is not possible for me to listen to all the vile blather about immigrants without remembering that experience with a "wetback." 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Earth's water crisis: A vision from space


         (NASA photo of irrigation patches in the Arabian peninsula, verdant and dry)


Earth’s water crisis: A vision from space

By: Langdon Winner

About fifteen years ago I took part in a conference on the future of space exploration held at the Rice University campus in Huston.  There were a number of talks by philosophers of technology along with a colorful presentation by Story Musgrave, American astronaut who had traveled into space on six NASA missions.  My own contribution stressed the need for nations of the world, including the U.S., to go beyond the breast thumping nationalism and militarism that had characterized the early decades of “the space race.”  “Why not make space a truly universal human concern, rather than a demonstration of a particular country’s power and prestige?” I asked.

Musgrave, a brilliant engineer, MD, philosopher, poet, and scholar with wide-ranging interests, is renown as the person who flew on the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1993, going outside the ship to repair equipment problems in Hubble Telescope, glitches that had rendered the satellite basically useless.  His main contribution at the conference was to show and comment upon photographs he had taken during several of his flights in orbit.  Among the scenes were panoramas of whole continents, oceans and islands, cities lighted at night, lakes, clouds, and an array of human-made systems of dwelling, energy and transportation.  One especially astonishing sequence of slides showed a lightning storm spreading across a vast landscape.  “From space one can clearly see,” he noted, that lightning bursts are not singular events, but systematic patterns fanning out from a center along a chain of electrical points.” (1)

Musgrave explained that his use of photography in space over the years stemmed from an insight that dawned on him during his first flights into the stratosphere.  As he worked with his fellow astronauts, he noticed how few seemed genuinely interested in the marvels that surrounded them as they circled Earth.  Some of them scarcely bothered to look up from the instruments and displays they were monitoring.  Just outside the windows of their satellites were the most extraordinary vistas ever witnessed by a human being.  “But many of my colleagues were so thoroughly involved with their assigned routines that they didn’t take time to gaze into universe that beckoned.”

Appalled by this odd, unnecessary convention, Musgrave quietly rebelled.  As he told our gathering, “I cultivated a particular habit.  Wherever I was in orbit inside the capsule or outside in a space suit, whatever it was I had to accomplish, I would remind myself every 90 seconds or so: Story, look around!”  In that spirit, he made it his practice to pause, turn his eyes from the equipment for a moment, and gaze out at the stars and down toward the Earth.  He persisted in doing this even during the intensive, delicate work floating weightlessly to install new electronics packages for the Hubble. “Why should I avoid taking a moment to gaze into the universe?” he exclaimed.  “After all, I was one of the few persons in all of human history to have had this wonderful opportunity.”

During our panel discussion of the future of space travel, Musgrave expressed some sympathy with the general argument I’d made about the need to reject the Cold War patriotism and military ideology of the first generation American space programs.  Perhaps he was just being polite, but he offered no objection to my provocation that the earliest steps in U.S. space initiatives were an afterthought, attempts to glamorize the production of intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

My subsequent reading about Story’s life and work made it clear that, in fact, his experience of space travel had always been intensely spiritual, informed by his readings in philosophy poetry, and natural history including the classics of European romanticism, the works of American transcendentalists -- Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and others -- sensibilities expressed in some 300 poems about space he’s written over the years. 

In a 1997 interview for the Academy of Achievement, Musgrave took care to emphasize the literary and philosophical roots of his vision.  “Whitman expressed the whole universe in his poetry and in his catalogues. That attitude almost defines what we call American romanticism, or American transcendentalism. I feel particularly close to them, because I am now out in the universe. I'm in a position to see nature from another point of view, to be outside the earth and see the big picture. To have an absolutely clear shot at the skies and to see stars that you can't see from down here, Magellanic clouds, auroras, a new perspective of nature.... It's clear to see why I like the English romantics and the American transcendentalists. I like their poetry as literature but also, from a philosophical point of view, I have very close ties to them.” (2)

One of the slides he showed at the conference left strong, lasting impression on me, enough so that I’ve used it -- along with his “Story, look around!” maxim -- in my classroom teaching over the years.  From a vantage point high above the Earth, the photo showed the Arabian Peninsula in bright daylight, revealing massive arrays of little green circles in precise geometrical patterns within the yellow desert terrain.  “What you see here,” he explained, “are systems of irrigation using gigantic water sprinklers that move slowly in circular swaths, watering fields of wheat and other agricultural products.” Clearly, the dozens of green circles were expressions of one of the signature projects in the “conquest of nature” celebrated during the mid-twentieth century: “making the deserts bloom.” He paused for a moment and then quietly mused,  “It took tens of thousands of years for water to gather in the deep aquifers that these farms now pump to the surface.  It will take only twenty years to exhaust them.”  And with that he clicked on to the next slide.         

Musgrave’s comments are echoed in a series recent scientific studies and news reports about one the excesses of contemporary civilization -- the increasingly frantic quest to extract water from the world’s remaining aquifers.  Many of the green circles from satellite photos of the Arabian Peninsula have already turned brown as the underground wells that quenched them have dried up, never to be replenished.  According to recent estimates, four fifths of the water in Saudi Arabia’s wells have been tapped out.  Although the country has built desalinization plants to provide water from the sea, the cost of $1 per cubic meter is prohibitive for agricultural applications.  A desperate alternative has been to secure lands and water for Saudi agriculture at distant locations including the headwaters of the Nile River in Ethiopia. Projects of this kind have repeatedly brought the Saudis in conflict with local populations unhappy with the coming of billionaire oil sheiks. (3)

A similar predicament now faces my home state of California.  Four years of persistent drought have eliminating much of the water that once flowed in abundance from rains and snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada mountains, forcing farms, towns and cities to draw upon deposits of water from underground wells and deep aquifers.  According to the March 2015 estimate of NASA hydrologist Jay Famiglietti, “Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.  In short, we have no paddle to navigate this crisis.” (4)  An additional unhappy surprise is that as water is pumped from the ground to supplant customary surface supplies, some communities have experienced the sinking of large patches of land as subsurface caverns give way. 

The larger picture of events in Arabia and California is offered in a comprehensive scientific study published earlier this year, warning that many of the world’s largest and most crucial sources of underground fresh water are now in steep decline.   From 2003 to 2013 NASA’s GRACE satellites measured changes in the Earth’s gravitational pull, ones caused by reduction in the mass of water from the world’s aquifers.  (5)   As reported by the Washington Post, “Twenty-one of the world’s 37 largest aquifers – in locations from India and China to the United States and France – have passed their sustainability tipping points, meaning more water was removed than replaced during the decade-long study-period....” (6)  Roughly 35% of all water used by people around the globe comes from underground sources of this kind.

Among the troubles that afflict our planet today are the alluring power fantasies left behind by the era of reckless modernity of the twentieth century.  Some of the more prominent lingering delusions assume a limitless supply of resources crucial for economic growth, consumerist materialism and “the good life,” including what were long assumed to be the “free” and “inexhaustible” resources of fresh water from the skies and in our lakes, streams and rivers.  To some extent the worlds’ growing awareness of resource depletion, global climate disruption and other features of civilization's assault upon Earth’s biosphere arose from observations and measurements gathered by space satellites and those skillfully employ them.  Today, as the world's people seek new policies and creative alliances to address these calamities, the availability of good scientific evidence from satellites and elsewhere is, of course, absolutely crucial.  But for a generation inclined to stare passively, even obsessively into video displays and smart phone screens, the wisdom of Story Musgrave’s astronaut invocation seems more relevant than ever: “Humanity, look around!"

   # # # # # # # # # # #

(1)  The quotes from Dr. Musgrave I offer here are from my memory and should be understood only as, I hope, faithful reconstructions of his remarks at the Rice conference. 

(2) “Interview: Story Musgrave, Dean of American Astronauts,” May 22, 1997, Baltimore, Maryland.  http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/printmember/mus0int-1

(3)  Fred Pearce, “Saudi Arabia stakes a claim on the Nile,” National Geographic, Wed., Dec. 19, 2012. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/12/121217-saudi-arabia-water-grabs-ethiopia/

(4)  Jay Famiglietti, “California has about one year of water stored. Will you ration now?” Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2015.  http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-famiglietti-drought-california-20150313-story.html

(5)   Alexandra S. Richey, et al, “Uncertainty in global groundwater storage estimates in Total Groundwater Stress framework,” Water Resources Research, July 14, 2015.

(6)  Todd C. Frankel, “New NASA data show how the world is running out of water,” The Washington Post, June 16, 2015.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2015/06/16/new-nasa-studies-show-how-the-world-is-running-out-of-water/







Friday, February 13, 2015

Facing the Plague: Economic and Political Inequality


     
[Note:  This essay was first published last December in Teknokultura, Vol 11, no 3 (2014)
http://teknokultura.net/index.php/tk/article/view/246
I reprint it here for the convenience of those who read items on my blog.]



FACING THE PLAGUE:

ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL INEQUALITY

By: Langdon Winner

Department of Science and Technology Studies,
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180


Hopes for the future of democracy must now confront a basic power shift that has emerged since the early 1970s and is now reaching its advanced stages.   This shift in control over key decisions and policies is clearly visible in my own country, the U.S.A., but is evident in many other nations as well.  At stake is a seemingly ineluctable transfer of power from national governments to the transnational firms; from elected officials to directors of large banks, hedge funds, and global firms; from citizens to plutocrats; from democracy to corporatocracy.

Recognition of this shift is by no means new.  In recent years it has been thoroughly described and theorized in books on globalization, the rise of the information society and creation of the new economy.  It is, for example, a key theme in Manuel Castells books on the “network society” and in Sheldon Wolin’s masterful study, Democracy Incorporated (Wolin, 2010).

Especially remarkable today are the numerous, troubling manifestations of power shift as it achieves maturity, specific signs of the obvious erosion at the very heart of democracy within nations, including the U.S.A., a country that has long believed it was prosperous enough and powerful enough to maintain the integrity of its fundamental principles and institutions against any unfriendly incursions.

An awareness of undeniable symptoms of this malady have made it necessary for me to change how I teach politics to university undergraduates.  For many years the topic was perfectly straightforward, predictable and even a little dull.  I offered a class entitled “American Politics and Elections” that included such topics as how our three branches of government work and interact, how a bill becomes a law in Congress, and how elections in a pluralist democracy operate.  It was a basic, well-worn overview right out of the standard political science textbooks.

But about five years ago, it dawned on me that I could no longer honestly teach the standard narrative because the political system had changed fundamentally and was no longer working as advertised.  How could I go on teaching the old, outdated myths as if nothing had changed?  For example, if you look at how “a bill becomes a law” in our House of Representatives at present, you would have to admit that there are very few instances when that actually happens.   During the Obama years (with few exceptions) the Congress has refused to pass laws and policies expected to have any positive outcomes for American society.  Legislation is blocked, totally obstructed by intensely ideological “conservative” politicians as those on the other side watch helplessly dumbfounded.  Everyone in Washington, D.C. recognizes this gridlock, but few own up to its deeper implications.  The flimsy excuse -- “But both sides do it” – is about as far as most observers are willing to venture.  Indeed, the prevalence of “both sider” explanations are a tell tale sign that political discourse and journalism have simply relinquished any willingness to probe the basic causes of widely noticed maladies in American politics and, indeed, in American society as a whole.

After several years of observing the paralysis, the public has begun to take notice.  Recent opinion polls show that Congress has become a total laughing stock with approval ratings that hover around 5%.  The nominal leader of Congress, “the Speaker” John Boehner, proudly announced that his success will not depend on how many laws he passes, but how many laws are repealed.  For this reason when I teach introductory politics these days, I must explain the void: how a bill does not become a law.

A similar need arises in helping students understand the current status of the three branches of government in our Constitution – the executive, judicial and legislative branches.   It is now apparent that two of the three have been radically transformed
their workings.  The legislative branch is now more accurately called the “obstructive” branch, since it obstructs any constructive legislation aimed at addressing national problems of any significance.   In similar ways, the judicial branch – especially the Supreme Court – now functions as a group of nine unaccountable kings and queens who usually uphold whatever the corporations and wealthy elites demand.   Thus, the three branches of government, I explain in my classroom (with only a small touch of irony), are now the executive, the obstructive and the monarchical.

Beyond this comedy of labels, of course, lie some gravely serious issues.  Perhaps the most shocking surprise flowing directly from the power shift at the heart of American politics right now – a surprise that has recently erupted with extraordinary force – the enormous gap in the inequality of income, wealth and political power that has arisen in the U.S.A.

Most Americans are simply befuddled as they learn the sad facts about extreme inequality and their implications, for the situation is completely at odds with the most basic American beliefs, including what has traditionally been known as “The American Dream” (Smith, 2012) (Barlett & Steele,  2012).  From its beginning, the the nation has supposedly been committed to equality as its founding principle.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…,” Thomas Jefferson proclaimed in The Declaration of Independence.  Perhaps the greatest work of political theory about the USA, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, could more accurately have been named “Equality in America,” for that was what the French philosopher and statesmen observed when he visited the young republic in the 1830s.  In every town and village, what Tocqueville noticed were ordinary American people busily realizing dreams of equality as the nation expanded westward (de Tocqueville, 2003).

Of course, there were always notable exceptions to this grand ideal.  America’s native peoples, African slaves, the indentured servants of the Republic’s early years, women until the mid 20th century, and African-Americans during the decades of “Jim Crow” segregation were all excluded from the dynamics of equality.  (These are stories for another occasion.)  Suffice it to say the idea of equality and of equal rights is central to America’s understanding of itself as a very special and virtuous place – “American exceptionalism” as some observers (even now) like to proclaim.

Unfortunately, during the past four decades or so there has arisen a remarkable turnaround in the legend of equality in the USA, the appearance of trends long documented by social scientists, but ones ignored by the media and most politicians.  The lid finally blew off the story with the eruption of the Occupy Wall Street in the autumn of 2011 when “the gap” between the 1% and 99% became headline news.

Some of the basic facts are these:

Since the early 1970s there has been an astonishing shift in the distribution of wealth and income in the United States.

The real wages of working class and middle-class people have essentially flattened, while the incomes of the top 1% to 2% have soared.

The differential can be seen in the comparison of the incomes of chief executive officers (CEOs) in banks and corporations to the earnings of ordinary workers.  In 1978 CEOs earned 29 times more
than the average employee.

 In 2012 they took home roughly 203 times more than workers overall (Mishel & Sabadish, 2013) In fact, one recent analysis shows that CEOs today earn 311 times the pay of the average American worker (Paywatch, 2013), while some estimates of today’s inequality in the U.S. soar even higher.

During several decades marked by steady economic growth and steadily rising productivity, workers have captured very little of the gains.   Today’s exaggerated levels of inequality in wealth in the U.S. are comparable to those of ancient Rome.  The magnitude of inequality of income is worse than any other industrialized country, even worse than developing countries such as Pakistan and the Ivory Coast.  A recent study of the statistics revealed that the top 0.1% of the U.S. population commands wealth equal to 90% of the rest of the populace (Saez & Zucman, 2014) (Monaghan, 2014).  And the economic crevasse continues to expand with dizzying rapidity.

While many America citizens are vaguely aware of this unhappy situation in contemporary social life, very few comprehend the sheer size of the gap that separates the excessively rich from everyone else (Utrend, 2014).  What is truly unsettling to citizens, politicians and academics alike is that what have long been understood as conventional remedies for economic malaise available to the nation are no longer functioning.  Most notable is the lovely conviction that economic growth in itself will boost the fortunes of the working class and middle class Americans.  In fact, there has been considerable expansion of the economy as a whole and growth in the productivity of workers in recent times, much of it due to computerization.  But since the middle 1970s real wages have flattened or even declined for roughly 60% of the population.  Trends of this kind are intensifying.  Since the economic crash of 2008, 95% of the income gains in the USA during the so-called “recovery” have gone to the top 1%.  (Saez, 2012)

In fact, according to recent opinion polls, most Americans do not believe there has even been a “recovery.” Recovery, you say?  What recovery?  Where?  When?  The fact that Wall Street is prospering and corporate profits are skyrocketing means very little or ordinary people whose salaries have stalled or are among the long term unemployed and are still struggling to make ends meet.  Happy talk from the Obama administration about many months of “job creation” and “economic growth” have done little assuage the very real fears of the middle class and working poor that “the economy” no longer functions for them.

Perhaps even more unnerving sign of the effect of inequality is growing skepticism about the cherished belief that America is a “land of opportunity.”  Social surveys indicate that in recent times there has been almost no upward economic mobility.  If you are born in a particular socio-economic stratum, you are almost certainly destined to stay right there.  Vanishingly few people are able to rise to higher levels (DeParle, 2012).  Deeply entrenched inherited wealth has become a dominant, enduring feature of the social order.

Taken together these surprises about people's real economic conditions point to a predicament often noted in today's political discussions -- the collapse of the aforementioned “American Dream" --  the  celebrated belief that if a person worked hard and played by the rules, one could prosper, buy a home, give one's children a good education, and retire comfortably in one's later years.  Along with evidence of stagnant or even declining wages there is undeniable evidence that other important features of the dream are rapidly fading as well.  Funds for public education are being slashed, several hundred thousands teachers have lost their jobs since the 2008 crash and college education is affordable only to the wealthy or by those by willing to take on crushing burdens of debt.  Buying a house is possible for fewer and fewer people.  Old age pensions have largely been eliminated.  People expect to work many more years than in previous generations.  

Recognizing trends of this kind, our politicians and journalists have begun talking about a crisis.  They ask, “Whatever became of The American Dream?”  As the great comedian George Carlin once observed: “"The owners of this country know the truth: It's called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it."  (Carlin, 2005).

When I ask my students about their visions of life’s possibilities they often choose to avoid the trends glaring at them in the statistics.  Their eyes still shine brightly as they intone the lovely myth that America is “the land of opportunity.”  But they have no solid answer to my question:  “What in the world does opportunity mean these days?”  A common move is to embrace fantasies of becoming the next great billionaire and joining the 0.01%.  One of their favorite examples is Elon Musk, a South African/Canadian who, as a young man, came to the U.S. and co-founded Pay Pal, got fabulously rich and went on the found the Tesla automobile company and a firm that builds space rockets.  Here, students explain, is grand proof of what’s still possible in America.   When I ask what’s the sample size for the likelihood of success on that scale, they admit it’s one in 30 million people or so.  But they remain confident that they themselves will be the next winners in the great entrepreneurial lottery.  They plan to overcome inequality (and pay off their staggering student loans) by becoming fabulously rich in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street.  I smile appreciatively and wish them “Good luck!”

For those who look more closely at this predicament, it becomes clear that the phenomenon of inequality is not simply a matter of wealth and poverty.  A widely read survey of cross-national data shows that societies like the USA that exhibit wide gaps in income inequality are more likely to experience a range of social and psychological ills – higher rates of mental illness, suicide, depression, illegal drug use, lack of trust, and other maladies.  In their book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Strong, demographers Kate Picket and Richard Wilkinson and suggest that inequality is kind of collective disease, a pervasive malady that afflicts members of society as a whole – both the poor and the rich – a disease of the body politic itself (Pickett and Wilkinson, 2010).

Attempts to explain the origins of pathological levels of inequality we see today are hotly debated among economists, sociologists and public-policy analysts.  In the list of causes one finds the influence of free trade agreements, corporate outsourcing of jobs, the financial and organizational features of globalization, decades long rates of return on capital as compared to ordinary economic growth, the lingering effects of racial discrimination, and numerous other factors.  The debate has recently been galvanized by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a magisterial study of decades of international economic data, an attempt to explain the reappearance of staggering inequalities reminiscent of the Belle Époque in Europe  (Gilded Age in the U.S.A.) of the late 19th century (Picketty, T., 2014).

One element of the story that, although probably not the most important in the overall situation, is one that attracted the attention of scholars and policy makers in the late 1970s.  I first took note of this body of research during a time in which I moved from conventional political science to the field of science and technology studies (STS). A hotly contested issue back then was that of automation, computerization and what was often called “the future of work.”

It was perfectly clear to industrial workers, corporate managers, and academics in the emerging field of STS, that digital technologies were involved in a wide range of changes in the material and social settings of industrial production.  Significant examples of developments underway were the creation of the regimes of containerized cargo in international shipping as well the creation of new generations of machines in factory production, including computer numerically controlled machine tools, CNCs.  Conferences, seminars and public debates in universities and other venues pondered the innovations on the horizon with an emphasis upon how intelligent, caring people could participate in planning for and shaping the changes underway.  No one knew exactly how these events would unfold, but a great many observers understood that sweeping transformations in technologies of industrial production would surely affect the fabric of social life.

Thoughtful participants in the debate wondered about whether or not there should be an overall "industrial policy," a set of plans cooperatively fashioned by leaders in government, the corporations, and labor unions to guide the future of technological development and the qualities of working life in the decades ahead.  As the “post-industrial” economy took shape, of course, intentions of that kind were never realized.  The vogue of neoliberalism with its faith in the exquisite beneficence of the market transfixed leaders in the corporations and political parties.  Within this magical mindset no American “industrial policy” was ever devised, no democratically formulated plan for the future of factory work, no strategy for managing technological change for the greater good.

An important study within this field of issues was the research of historian David F. Noble on the design, development and introduction of computer numerically controlled machine tools during the 1940s through the 1970s.  Noble’s research pointed to a struggle between two distinctly different conceptions of industrial innovation within projects the sought to connect factory lathes used to mill metal parts with the power of computers.   One model – the record playback machine -- left much of the initiative and creativity on the shop floor in the hands of skilled unionized workers.  In the shaping of metal parts, such machines were guided by the hands of conventional factory workers, their motions electronically recorded for playback on the cutting of production runs of metal parts.

An alternative model, computer numerically controlled machine tools, CNC, favored by the Air Force corporations like General Electric, was a design that relied upon white collar engineers and managers off the shop floor to do the intricate computer programming that would guide the actions of the machines.

In his book Forces of Production, Noble details the history of these developments, using historical records to test various hypotheses about why CNC was eventually victorious while the record playback machine more favorable to ordinary workers was rejected (Noble,  1984).   What, he asks, was decisive in the outcome?  Was it the quest for precision, efficiency, flexibility, or even profitability for the corporation?

Noble argues that if one looks carefully, none of the favored explanations holds up very well.   What was decisive in the end was the quest for managerial control over the production process.  The managers at GE wanted a technological design and mode of implementation that favored their own power over that of unionized workers.  Thus, they chose the CNC design with all that entailed and rejected the material design and social relations of record playback.
Directly in question was the role of the participation and creativity of blue-collar working people, the survival of their jobs, their incomes, the labor unions, and ultimately their very way of life.

Within the great confrontations during the 1960s into the late 1970s, the workers lost and the US military and its corporate contractors won.  At stake were momentous choices about which machines would be designed and implemented and where control would be located – a crucial dimension of what today see as a sweeping power shift.

Recently, sociologists and economists have been going back over the data about productivity and technological change to see which patterns can help explain an increasingly troubled state of affairs in the USA – the decline of manufacturing and the demise of the kinds of work that supported a prosperous working class in the U.S. during the thirty years or so after World War II.  One retrospective of this kind is a study by Tali Kristal published in the American Sociological Review, "The Capitalist Machine: Computerization, Workers' Power and the Decline in Labor's Share within U.S. Industries” (Kristal, 2014), a lengthy, sophisticated, quantitative analysis that teases out of the data the various circumstances that account for widening inequality within the US populace.

Kristal notes that since the late 1970s there has been a “decline in labor’s share of national income” of 6%.  Much of this is “due to a large decline” (as much as 14%) “in construction, manufacturing and transportation combined.”  She notes that earlier, during the 1950s and 1960s, labor’s share of income had steadily increased.  However, “Since then, labor’s share has declined in all rich countries, as labor unions and labor-affiliated political parties fell on lean times and workers were left without a strong collective voice to confront employers.”  Looking at the U.S. data she concludes “that computer-based technologies are not class neutral but embody essential characteristics that favor capitalists (and high-skilled workers), while eroding most rank-and-file workers bargaining power.”

To be more precise, Kristal writes, “computerization has reduced labor’s share indirectly through its role in reducing unionization.”  This echoes David Noble's position argued in the late 1970s and early 1980s in his study of numerically controlled machine tools.  In his book, Progress Without People, Noble argued that this was not an isolated case, but one representative of a wide range of computerized applications in industry (Noble, 1995).  The corporate formula was: Remove control from rank-and-file workers.  The CNC model of new machine tools was merely part of an ongoing technologically embodied attack upon the power of labor unions aimed at liquidating entire categories of skilled factory work.  

Of course, the whole story here has many additional, noteworthy dimensions, including surveillance of workers on the job, strategies of divide and conquer especially in payment schedules, firing union activists, and a good deal more.  But, as Kristal’s research makes clear, the influence of particular kinds of technological initiatives strongly shaped the broader outcomes.

Noble’s study emphasized the question: Can factory workers’ skills be replicated by computer programs used to run production equipment?  Today the equivalent question can be stated more broadly:  Can all or most forms of productive activity be embodied within the countless, rapidly proliferating algorithms that do useful work with little or no human presence?   In studies such as Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy  by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, the  classic debate about technology and the future of work and income is reborn, this time on steroids. (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2011).   Books and articles in this genre, often written by people in schools of management and by Silicon Valley gurus, openly speculate that in the decades just ahead countless millions of people will be thrown out of work by a flood new artificially intelligent algorithms in every conceivable field of human activity.  Will the ongoing ruminations and proposals in this genre be more fruitful than the “future of work” debates of the 1970s?  (Don’t count on it.)

Another feature of the power shift evident in spiraling levels of economic inequality in America is a distressing trend in the nation’s political life, one slowly beginning to dawn on the citizenry -- the recognition that those who now derive their riches from international finance and global regimes of production and service no longer much care about vitality and coherence of democratic society.  The evidence mounts that wealthy corporations and business moguls are often busily at work seeking to undermine the integrity of democratic institutions and vitality of civic culture (McChesney and Nichols, 2013).

Ominous indicators here include the hundreds of millions of dollars spent in the U.S. by wealthy individuals and their campaign organizations to dominate the outcome of elections.  Their explicit goal is that of placing in office people who will lower taxes on the rich, eliminate barriers of regulation on corporate activity, dismantle government programs that help ordinary people, and reduce the share of income that everyday workers can expect to receive.   Because the enormous amounts of money spent by wealthy individuals and organizations is largely secret (“dark money”), it is difficult for citizens to know exactly what is happening in elections, much less in public policy making.  But the facts dribble out bit by bit.  For example, two of America's most powerful oligarchs -- the Koch brothers – Charles and David Koch -- spent more than $400 million on the 2012 elections (Gold, 2014).  During the same period the network of moneyed interests organized Karl Rove spent hundreds of millions as well.  In this vein, a long list of millionaires and billionaires are involved in flagrant efforts to undermine the choice of government officials and processes by which pubic policies are made.  A series of recent Supreme Court decisions, the notorious “Citizens United” judgment in particular, have ratified such bald-faced varieties of corruption and extortion as constitutionally protected “free speech” available to corporations defined now defined as “persons” (Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, 2010).

To a great extent influence of this kind has simply absorbed one of our two political parties, the Republican Party, a once reputable  organization that now serves as a kind of hollow shell for priorities of America's increasingly open and aggressive corporatocracy.   Within elections at the level of our fifty states, forces of this kind are now engaged in campaigns of neo-Jim Crow voter suppression, “gerrymandering” (controlling the shape of electoral district boundaries), instituting a variety of measures that make it difficult for their opponents to vote at all.  This amounts to an increasingly open, explicitly shameless declaration of war on the most elemental expression of democracy – the vote.

Although seldom stated as such, the underlying goal of these machinations is to eliminate the role of government as a positive force for recognizing and solving important problems that face American society.  The idea that a democratically elected government can be and ought to be an active, creative problem-solving institution is now directly under attack.  During the years of Obama’s presidency this has largely been achieved.  After his first two years during which there were a few modest reforms in government policies, Obama’s opponents have blocked every significant reform he has proposed.  His presidency has been reduced to a sequence of flowery speeches with no consequences for legislation or public policy (Pierce, 2013).

An increasingly tangible, visible consequence of this situation is that “the world’s richest nation” is simply no longer engaged in plans or projects to address the country’s most urgent needs.  Even simple matters about which one might expect an easy consensus – rebuilding crumbling roads, repairing decaying bridges, replacing outmoded airports, revitalizing the public schools, etc. – are left unattended.   This is readily apparent to anyone who travels to the USA from foreign, still ambitious countries – China for example – that are constructing new public facilities at a rapid clip.   Signs of torpor and inaction in the U.S. at present are positively breathtaking.

By the same token the country is not building new schools, not launching programs in job creation and certainly not responding in any serious way to the need to address the emergencies of climate change.  While the government still funds scientific research, levels of spending in that category have been frozen.

Evidence of this kind reveals the power shift in stark detail.  A yawning vacuum in public priorities and the exercise of democratic government points to a ruling elite that has simply ceased to care about the U.S. populace as a whole.  Justified by bombastic talk about growing debt and deficits and excessive government spending, the standard nostrums involve cutting taxes, eliminating government regulations and slashing programs that offer resources to the working poor: food stamps, higher minimum wages, unemployment insurance, job training, social security, and so forth.

In their recent, meticulous, data driven study, political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page demonstrate what most careful observers of the American system already understood: elected officials pay almost exclusive attention to the priorities of society’s most wealthy segment, very little heed to the expressed wants and needs of the great mass of citizens (Gilens and Page, 2014).   As the authors note, “When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”   At the article’s conclusion, Gilens and Page reflect upon what their data has revealed and lament that “if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threated.”

It is no mystery why the wealthy economic and political elites – the 1% as Occupy Wall Street called them –would favor measures that consolidate their power.  But, you may be asking, isn’t it true that there are tens of millions of everyday people in the middle class and even among the working poor who regularly vote for the policies that favor today’s conservative oligarchy?
 
Yes, in fact, a fairly large segment of the American people is beguiled by an ideology of so-called “freedom” that justifies the kinds of market measures the oligarchs prefer.  Beyond that, a great many even be seem to be aware that, in actual practice, the term “market” identifies ways that large business firms are shipping their jobs to China, Vietnam and elsewhere and devastating their standard of living.   But how can one explain a situation in which of 30% or more of the voting populace supports corporate interests and elects politicians that work to undermine the wellbeing of everyday citizens?

In my view, the answer can be found in the power of resentment.  It’s increasingly clear that people who are not wealthy come to be persuaded that government is simply in the business of taking their money and giving it to the "others" -- giving it to the underserving poor, those lazy louts in other neighborhoods (Frank, 2004).   A cleverly crafted, intricately coded language of “dog whistle politics” evokes feelings of that kind-- diatribes about “welfare queens,” “young bucks,” the “culture of inner city males,” and so forth – strongly suggesting that the “others” are unworthy black and brown people or immigrants from foreign countries (Hanley-López, 2014).  This is a topic Americans do not like to discuss explicitly in public:  How race and racial discrimination are very much a part of distribution of power in the country both historically and in the present moment as well.
 
How is it that so many people in the US whose own fortunes are visibly sinking nevertheless repeatedly vote for the interests of billionaires and a well-organized corporatocracy?   The basic mind set appears to be:  Precisely because I realize that my own prospects are sinking, I will do my best to make sure that the government will not spend and tax dollars to help anybody else, especially those undeserving “others.”  A mentality of this kind has been spectacularly on display in recent election, especially the “off year,” non-presidential elections of 2010 and 2014 in which “conservative” Republicans were notably successful at the polls.

This is a remarkably different attitude from that of European social democracy or American New Deal liberalism in which a majority agreed: "We're all in this together.  Let's pool our resources and move forward."  That was the prevailing view in the USA during the middle of the twentieth century – a view of hope, solidarity and  national community.  Alas, sentiments of that kind have pretty much evaporated within today’s mainstream political discourse and media coverage.  The one exception is occasional mobilization for war, currently “the war on terror,” including the attack on and occupation of Iraq in 2003 and other battles in the Middle East, e.g., the offensive against ISIS in Syria and Iraq in 2014.

Much of the American populace today – a great many older, white, working class and middle class voters have moved from the mentality of hope, solidarity and national community – a mentality that many of them formerly embraced -- to a mood of rigid, embittered resentment heightened by waves of fear – fears of an Ebola outbreak, of imagined waves of immigrants flooding the nation’s borders and the fear-of-the week fanned by reactionary politicians and “pundits” on cable TV.  This makes them natural allies with the wealthy ruling oligarchs who have now rather openly and unabashedly written off much of the U.S. p0pulace altogether.

Recently, attitudes of this kind have erupted within the very mainstream of American public life.  During the 2012 presidential campaign candidate Mitt Romney gave a talk, secretly recorded by a waiter at a funding raising event, in which Romney let the cat out of the bag, arguing that about half the country’s voters,  — 47%, “believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. …. My job not to worry about those people.  I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."  (Corn, 2103)

From this point of view the nation’s population is divided into two opposing segments: “The Makers and The Takers”.  As argued by corporatist elites as well as the long-standing extremist conservative faction re-branded as “The Tea Party,” the message is in effect:  We’re fed up with half the American people and we’re not giving them another dime of “our money.”

Sentiments of this sort reflect circumstances in which the vitality of the nation state in steering the economy and responding to social needs has yielded to priorities of transnational, intricately networked, increasingly voracious 21st century capitalism.  As this transformation continues, it becomes increasingly obvious that many of the traditional practices, institutions and modes of communication in national politics suffer from a profound paralysis and derangement.

One symptom of the derangement is evident in the decay of mainstream political discourse -- the discourse of our politicians as well as communication formats that prevail in our mass media, a crippled discourse that blocks an effort to imagine fruitful strategies of action.  A regrettable instance took shape in 2013-2014 as President Barack Obama, an intelligent, caring, obviously competent man – began to talk about the scourge of inequality in occasional public comments.   In the weeks leading up to his 2014 State of the Union address, Obama seemed to be getting ready to tackle inequality forcefully, head on.  His speeches emphasized the gravity of the problem of inequality how it was eating away at the nation's soul and its very future.  Many of his supporters expected that Obama would soon propose strong policy measures to reverse this trend.

But when Obama’s opportunity to speak to the nation finally arrived, any mention of the lethal collective disease of inequality had somehow vanished, replaced by Obama’s vague happy talk about how America was still a wonderful land of opportunity (Obama, 2014).   A great many people listened to the talk and said to themselves: What!  Please, Mr. President, the model of our society that you are talking about is the very one that is rapidly collapsing before our very eyes.   You’ve recently admitted as much yourself.  Why is it that we cannot we come together to talk about these matters in, open, honest, decisive terms?

  Along with the other problems I’ve mentioned, a crucial problem is that America’s capacities of political speech are increasingly vacuous, irrational and absurd, out of touch with anything even remotely resembling reality.  As reflected in the widely watched Fox News Channel, a 24 hour a day of well produced, colorful, generally hate-filled commentaries on the news, and non-stop right wing talk shows on hundreds of AM radio stations, there is little desire to discuss the pressing issues of our time (Brock & Rabin-Havt, 2012).   Instead, Fox News propagates a series of largely imaginary scandals.  The current set includes what happened during the chaotic the events at Benghazi, the claim that Obama used the government’s tax office to attack right wing political groups, and the bungled introduction of the nation’s new health care plan.

Thus, Fox News channel’s exclusive message about government in Washington is the drumbeat – scandal! scandal! scandal!– even when rumors supposedly revealing the scandal have, for the most part, been thoroughly discredited.

As Manuel Castell’s writings of the 1990s argued (Castells, 1997) one sign of power shift and the weakening of the grasp of national governments is an obsession with pseudo-events, what some observers today call “anti-news” (Engehardt, 2014).  Because government officials can no longer perform the positive duties of office and because government is no longer a focused, resourceful problem-solving entity, the void in public life is filled with the latest sex gossip or reports about the misappropriation of public funds.  Stories of this kind fill the television screen twenty-four hours a day, making it seem as if issues of great importance are being presented to a well-informed public.  What is actually happening, of course, is that the public is being fed a steady diet of info-trash.

Looking at the predicament from a wider standpoint, it seems that the U.S.A. has met roughly the same fate as its political opponent in the Cold War, the Soviet Union (now Russia).  Both have shed the high ground of political principle that supposedly inspired their epic struggles for power – socialism for one country, freedom and democracy for the other -- only to collapse into rough, raw money hungry oligarchies ruling over increasingly dispirited populations.
So it goes for would-be empires.

The successful strategy of political capture engineered by the billionaire Koch brothers and their compadres in the top 0.1% can now be easily summarized.  If one funds enough policy think tanks, buys enough radio stations, owns enough cable television channels, endows enough university chairs, purchases enough election attack ads, pays for the favors of enough politicians, bankrolls for enough voter suppression laws, and employs enough lapdog pundits spewing right wing blather twenty-four hours a day, enough to dumb down political speech and most people into distraction, despair and passivity — then one has essentially bought a whole nation.  From the billionaire’s perspective, the total cost of the campaign was relatively cheap.  As the wipeout victory of the right wing in the 2014 elections made clear, the success of this oligarchical onslaught now looks less like a "challenge for American democracy" than the culmination of a slow moving coup d’etat (Democracy Now, 2014).

The situations I’ve described here defy any easy solution.  Beneficial policies would certainly include raising taxes on the wealthy, greatly increasing the minimum wage, providing free education for all citizens from kindergarten through college, giving poor families the real resources they would need to realize the “opportunity” that our politicians cynically proclaim in their speeches.  A clear, hopeful sign would be that massive numbers of people, especially young people, begin to recognize that the game is rigged -- that society is now systematically unequal, unjust, undemocratic, and unable to chart a reasonable future for them –, people who announce their vocal, active resistance to an economic and political order that now works only for the very rich.

A response of that kind began to emerge in the autumn of 2011 in the Occupy Wall Street movement and similar Occupy demonstrations across the United States.  This uprising called attention to the glaring gap between the wealthy 1% and the rest of the populace, many of whom are suffering severe decline in their incomes and life chances.

While the Occupy movement generated extensive lists of demands, it did not announce any specific set of goals or anoint a telegenic leader, a situation that made it difficult for the corporate media and our deeply bought off politicians to embrace its perfectly clear, urgent message.  Asking for widespread debate on a previously taboo subject – glaring conditions of inequality in America – Occupy refused to elevate any particular celebrity as its spokesperson.  Within their encampments in public parks and general assemblies, participants openly debated the most basic questions.  What is the problem here?  What can be done?

After a period in which the authorities allowed the demonstrations to continue, there was finally a brutal, nationwide crackdown.  Documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act reveal a coordinated attack planned by the F.B.I., Department of Homeland Security, local police, large banks, and several universities (Wolf, 2012).  

Scattered pieces of the Occupy movement still function online as well as in focused political initiatives such as the formation of a watchdog group to influence new regulations in the Securities and Exchange Commission and a program that raises funds to buy up mortgages homes subject to foreclosure.  At present there are Occupy-like demonstrations in the “Moral Monday” movement in North Carolina and other parts of the south, demanding an end to voter suppression laws and an end to ongoing attacks on women’s rights.

In sum, we live in a period of history in which the maladies of inequality have repeatedly surfaced, only to be swept under the rug; a time in which crucial “elections” have been reduced to mere “auctions;” a turning point in which the traditional workings of democracy have been replaced by pungent, thinly disguised forms of oligarchy and corporatocracy.  In this dire situation, the open, intelligent, resourceful resistance of a mass populace -- expressed in a variety of ingenious projects -- is the best course of action and, perhaps, the only pathway left to us.




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