Archive for January, 2014

“… and they all went to the beach”

As you may recall, the beach was where everyone went in Melina Mercouri’s, Ilya’s telling of Greek tragedy in the film “Never on Sunday”. In Ilya’s versions of Media and Oedipus, no one suffered they merely “went to the beach”. In the minds of some Americans no one is suffering, no one is involuntarily unemployed, no one is without adequate health care, and if you do have difficulties it’s your own fault and your’s to solve. There are those who, in some kind of fevered Tea Party fueled delirium, see Reaganesque “welfare queens” lolling about watching TV, driving Cadillacs; or in Mike Huckabee’s lascivious fantasy, women exercising their libidos at public expense. Apparently poor people in general are just having too much fun living off the rest of society. The view from the beach, a mirage, a delusion? In reality it’s everyone for themselves.

Unemployment Compensation barely puts food on the table for a family of any size but in the distorted imagination of some politicians relief in the form of food stamps is living high on the hog and leads to permanent dependency on government hand-outs. One has to wonder what people like Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, Ted Cruz, Louie Gohmert and their colleagues see as the beneficial outcome of policies leaving 1.6 million people who used to have jobs until they were laid off left without help. Do begging bowls dance like lemon drops in their dreams? Do they relish seeing children in rags and people in soup lines?  Do they believe publicly supported charities and food banks can cover the loss? What is the future these guys so dearly covet? Where are the jobs the welfare addicted are supposed to be avoiding? Right now there are 3 people looking for work for every job open. Jobs have been and are being exported overseas to places where wages are low and workplace safety is nonexistent. Should all employers follow the lead of WalMart or McDonalds and provide advice on how to apply for welfare?

What are people like Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin thinking when they characterize raising the minimum wage a “misguided political stunt” and “political grandstanding”? How does arguing against raising the minimum wage improve life for working Americans? Right now 85% of those earning minimum wage are 20 years of age and over, 26% are parents, 49% work full-time and there are 3 job seekers for every job available. Congressman Paul Ryan, at odds with the head of his church, apparently believes “Atlas Shrugged” is the bible and Ayn Rand a more reliable moral beacon than Pope Francis. On evidence it seems elected politicians have become storm commandos of class warfare leading the assault on our social contract being rewarded for their efforts by the multitude of “Institutes”, “Foundations”, and PACs underwritten by sociopathic billionaires. We are seeing the death throes of ethical behavior and public service by politicians being replaced by pandering and self-promotion.

Do complex societies collapse? Of course they do and they have been doing so for millennia and much for the same reasons. When societies become excessively extractive and economically exclusive, they have, across history, failed. When the arc of greed exceeded the arc of inclusiveness a downhill slide became irreversible. No matter how repressive, attempts at control ultimately failed. Restricting or denying voting rights for example will not protect the 85 people who have more wealth than half of the world’s population. It will not insulate them from the inevitable repercussions even if they generously “donate” to police departments as in New York City during the Occupy demonstrations. And this is why I find myself wondering:  What about all those guns people are encouraged to own and carry? What would happen if people, perceiving themselves as having nothing left to lose, decide to act out their frustrations and anger? When the constraints of shared community and mutual regard are shed I’ll suggest that we won’t be on our way to a beach party.

Larger Questions

Americans would do well to recall a caution from the great philosopher of democracy, Aristotle, that it is much easier to establish a Democracy than it is to preserve it. We are presently at a crossroads in our life as a democratic society, as a civilization, as a future. Our social contract, in place essentially since the Great Depression, is under attack by an over-reaching security apparatus, the very wealthy, politicians, and right-wing television networks. The plutocrats, as plutocrats are wont to do, act in service to their own wealth. Plutocrats serve themselves, politicians serve the plutocrats, and we, the American public, serve them all. The public in all of its disarray and confusion is managed and manipulated into smaller and smaller competing factions.

Separating people from a sense of community and identity with each other breaks the bonds of a civil society. It is clearly a barbaric and classic “divide and conquer” strategy for taking down a polity. This was a vision promoted by Lewis Powell in his infamous 1971, Powell Memo, a game plan commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Democratic social ideals are clearly under attack.

Do complex societies collapse? Of course they do. They have done so since the dawn of civilization and for much the same reasons. Recall, for instance, the Romans, Mayans, and Chacoans — large, complex societies, in business for hundreds of years. Gone! Disappeared. Judging from the torrents of political writing these days it is reasonable  to ask why so many writers and thinkers sense an impending collapse. To more than a few thoughtful observers the collapse of American society is an open question. As the collapse phenomenon has been historically frequent and persistent, calling out the concern contemporaneously isn’t exactly “Henny-Penny” panic. Is the sky falling now? Maybe – maybe not, but then, “See it – Say it” seems an appropriate and thoughtful response.

When 97% of a country’s wealth is in the hands of 1% of the population it is not a “rich” society as we are often told the US is. That is propaganda. And when the 1% isn’t satisfied with 97% of the wealth but actively engage in acquiring more the problem is even worse, it is no longer merely a matter of perception. It isn’t just that the 1% has so much of the wealth — it’s what they are doing with their wealth that is dangerous. Greed has never been recognized as conducive to a healthy social contract. It doesn’t matter if greed is for material wealth, public attention, notoriety, or power, it hoards the goods of a society away from the commons to a few.

While greed was’t invented last week it certainly seems to exist on an outlandish scale these days in a dangerous game of extractive overreach. Unless greed is a virtue, and it certainly is not, Capitalism has no recognizable moral order and I challenge any Nobel laureate economist to refute that. Capitalism and Democracy are not interchangeable terms. Something else is needed – populism perhaps?

Social corrosion is more than joblessness although that is significant enough. The taxonomy of greed extends to voting rights, health care, unemployment benefits, and public education to mention a few. An even more egregious example was the bailout in billions of dollars of the bankers who caused the financial collapse of 2008 and who, after causing financial ruin for millions, walked away richer than they were previously. Not one of the villains has been charged with a crime. If anything the miscreants have been lionized.

Meanwhile, on Main Street millions of Americans cannot find jobs to support themselves much less families. Many have dropped out of the workforce and out of the statistical reckoning of employment thus distorting unemployment statistics. Congressmen have added further injury by terminating extended unemployment benefits.

A larger question, I propose, is what became of the millions of jobs that have disappeared? The good paying jobs are not coming back because they have gone overseas. Unless Americans are willing to work for poverty wages such as those paid by McDonalds and WalMart or for what people in the Bangladesh sweat shops are paid there is no work. In another bit of irony, the government subsidizes McDonalds and WalMart providing corporate welfare in the form of food stamps and so forth for their underpaid employees.

So  here is a bottom line question: What kind of country do people like the Kochs, Steve Forbes, the Walton family, and others like them and their mouthpieces, Fox television commentators, and politicians like Ryan, Cantor, Boehner, and McConnell want to see? Is their fantasy something out of the 1930s with soup kitchens and families lined up for a hot meal?  Would they be amused perhaps to watch people of the lower classes fighting amongst themselves in some version of Hunger Games? There is little doubt we are at a defining moment in the history of this country, this society, and the egalitarian political philosophy it was founded on. Can it be preserved? I quote Alasdair MacIntyre: “ … the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.” We have a lot of hard work ahead of us.

 

 

 

 

 


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