Posts Tagged 'Bernie Sanders'

American Agonistes?

Is it ironic that in the second decade of the 21st century we are still debating equality in a country where all are supposed to be political equals? In the 18th century, the equality debate concerned the rights of colonists. In the 19th century the debate erupted into civil war over slavery, followed in the 20th over suffrage, and in the 21st the battlefield is economic equality, a societal battle over the rights of money over the rights of citizens as embodied in the destructive sophistry of the 2010 Citizens United decision.

Earlier equality debates have not been resolved either as there is always someone with a new twist seeking to undermine what should be settled law. Racism, sexual orientation, religion, bigotry, and mysogny are unrelenting, persistent, and tragically reinvented daily. It’s a curse, this agon, this quest for equality. Not so long ago Southern European immigrants were persecuted presently it’s Muslims and migrants fleeing economic and political oppression. It has always been blacks; next week it will be someone else. Truth is, if every person of color were to disappear tomorrow morning a new target group would be found by nightfall. While discrimination on the basis of wealth isn’t new on the list of divisive social issues it has now become critical when so many are unemployed, underemployed, or simply dropped out including college graduates laden with debt who cannot find employment.

Hedge fund managers making $24 million annually are taxed at 15% while truck drivers who earn $43 thousand a year are taxed at 28% the tax burden thus falls to working class people. In Kansas budget shortfalls will be made up with increased sales taxes and fees paid mainly by the working middle class and poor. A non-partisan policy group says the poorest 20 percent of the state will now pay 1.5 percent more in taxes than they did in 2012. or an average of $197 a year. The Governor, Sam Brownback, in a classic Orwellian trope, told the press this isn’t an increase but a tax cut.  I think we’re in Wonderland, Aunti Em.

  When wealth is gained at the expense of the majority of the members of a society, social viability becomes the paramount question. Historically such has  been the prelude to one sort of revolution or another and some think we may be on the precipice of a foundational evolutionary social reformation. Sentiments go well beyond the numerous books recently published about economic inequality and Capitalism. Petitions are being circulated calling for a constitutional amendment to nullify the obviously biased Citizens United decision. The presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, the rhetoric of Elizabeth Warren and others are also speaking to larger more fundamental deeply felt issues.

The realities of a diminished, if not extinguished, democracy are denial and negation of truth. Neither propaganda nor appeals to patriotism can make this go away because there is no alternative to inequality but equality. There is no livable alternate reality when 33 American cities already have or are planning to make feeding hungry people illegal. The casual abandonment of moral consideration is truly remarkable.

In an analysis  of federal policy initiatives dating from 1981 to 2002 researchers at Princeton concluded, “ economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” The denial and destruction of a government of, by, and for the people, is the antithesis of a democratic society paving an inevitable path to disengagement, and ultimately – dissolution. We can fairly ask as we must, how is it possible for a society to maintain a non-democratic economic system, qua religion, conflated with a barely functioning social contract? It is inarguable that a civilized society must correct those inequalities which can be corrected to provide the economic and social capital necessary to minimize inequalities of economic opportunity and political access.

Democracy as a political and social system requires equity, sharing, and engagement. Democracy is an expression of distribution and inclusion – capitalism is accumulation and exclusion. Capitalism is fundamentally a winner take all zero sum game, it has no ethic or morality other than to take it all is opposed to the sharing ethic required for a viable democratic civil society. Capitalism being finite and material has a natural end point – democracy being politically and socially aspirational does not, its horizon is indeterminate. In the absence of equal economic justice there is no possibility of a viable democratic social contract. As Adam Smith cautioned in his 1776 classic, The Wealth Of Nations: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.

The United States has been engaged in one war or another for 222 out of the past 239 years. Since 1776 we have also been at war with ourselves. Is this then the ongoing American agon? We must decide.

“ … comes the Revolution.”

The Economist recently published an essay asking, “What’s gone wrong with democracy?”. Why has Democracy run into trouble and what can be done to “revive” it. What’s “wrong” with Democracy is not limited to economics. American Democracy, such as it is, is long overdue for scrutiny. When a state supreme court chief justice claims the 1st Amendment only protects Christians and the US Supreme Court declares corporations are entitled life forms, more is wrong than a just few aberrations. It’s a movement and not a good one for Democracy.

Democracy and Capitalism are not compatible ideologies – they are, in fact, antithetical. Democracy is about human beings, Capitalism about money. Democracy is about equality, Capitalism is about inequality. The former asks for cooperation the latter demands competition. There are consequences to this dichotomy; one economist called it the “Great Gatsby curve” where upward social mobility is thwarted by inequality. It’s telling that the criticism of Piketty’s, Capital in the 21st Century, has been feeble at best.

Democracy is a political belief system while Capitalism is an economic belief system posing as a religion. As John Foster Dulles once remarked, “For us there are two kinds of people in the world. There are those who are Christians and support free enterprise, and there are the others.” Capitalism and Democracy are antagonistic. This isn’t complicated. Capitalistic success eliminates equality, establishes market hegemony, while redefining venality and greed as virtues. Democracy, on the other hand, binds a population into a sense of common good antithetical to the “whatever it takes” ethos of Capitalism.

Economist piece does not address the right-wing oligarchy’s attack on American Democracy lead by business-centric organizations such as ALEC, funded by wealthy underwriters such as the Koch boys and assisted by venal rent-seeking politicians. High on the ALEC agenda is curtailing voting rights. What better way to strangle democracy? As Nobel economist, Joseph E. Stiglitz pointed out, “in a system of one person one vote 100% of the people are supposed to count.” The right to vote can be and is being extinguished with gerrymandering and new voter ID laws at the state level. The voice of Democracy will be silenced when big money has its way.

A social contract is the essence of a society, which is to say it provides the generative syntax, the grammar of social conduct. All social contracts rest on foundations of social beliefs which, unlike religious beliefs, are tangible, provable, life as it is experienced on a daily basis. Traffic lights turn red and everyone is expected to stop. When the lights turn green we go. We believe others will respect the meaning of the lights because that is a covenant of the social contract. If drivers generally ignored this contractual requirement mayhem would result. Corporations shipping profits overseas to evade their fair share of taxes is clearly a violation of the “common good” social contract.

The goods of democratic social life lie in the commons. Greedy plundering of those commons is depredation and the core values of democracy – equality and cooperation – are destroyed. When this has happened historically people rebel, those in control become fearful, the social contract morphs into social control, and the soul of a society is stilled. Why is the US DOD funding Project Minerva, a large academic study, according to its summary documents, of “domestic situations … in the USA where the local population was seen from the military perspective as threatening the established balance of power and influence, and challenging law and order”? Is the recent militarization of police forces across the country an anticipation of social disorder?

The social contract in any society is large and messy. In spite of being riddled with contradictions and conflicts social contracts do manage somehow work. But when contradictions accumulate, disenfranchisement and inequality erode social bonds. Elected officials now take to television to chastise people who want to see a higher minimum wage – people who work 40 hours a week but can’t feed themselves let alone a family. Candidate for Senate Karen Handel of Georgia believes minimum wage laws should not even exist. The United States is a country where a basketball player earns $30 million a year against $43,000 a year for a firefighter who risks his life to save lives and protect property. Which service does the society value most? How does anyone morally justify $26.7 billion in bonuses for financiers who oversaw the destructive financial collapse that caused incalculable losses to pensioners and small savers across the country who have no recourse and no way to recover?

There is social contract theory and there are social contracts as they are lived. Contradictions add up they accrete, they harden attitudes and perceptions of social and economic injustice. Ultimately there are no longer shared perceptions or shared interests to bind the contract. Modern Dickensian squalor consists of people being forced out of their homes because of financial circumstances they have no control over or, as in the case of Detroit, the water supply is cut off to people’s homes because they can’t pay their utility bill.

Bernie Sanders points out, “There are more Americans living in poverty today than at any time in our nation’s history, the middle class is disappearing and we have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income in the world.” Relegating large numbers of people to the “poor door” slides society towards incivility and rebellion. When the middle class is reduced to poverty and their vested interest in an orderly society is no longer viable, they will revolt. They always have. What has gone wrong with Democracy is that it has been conflated with Capitalism. The notion of American exceptionalism has been rendered false. We are, after all these years, still struggling to meet the challenge of our Constitution –  “to form a more perfect union.” The outcome is yet uncertain. As an old friend of mine used to say, “comes the Revolution!”


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