Posts Tagged 'poverty'

Ripples Into Riptides

John Adams once wrote – “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.” The unrelenting war on all forms and manifestations of a democratic social contract has led to bloody revolutions in every era, on every continent, and in virtually every culture. They all begin as slight disturbances, ripples on the surface of daily events, minor perturbations in the status quo that eventually take on a destructive life of their own not unlike the early gentle rumblings of an earthquake.

History clearly demonstrates political Democracy and Capitalism are not compatible ideologies, they are contentious and contradictory belief systems. Capitalism has, at bottom, become a quasi-religion as much as an economic system. Whereas Capitalism is amoral imposing no limits on wealth extracted from the commons, Democracy, on the other hand, requires morality of community, civility, and commitment to the common welfare, in a word, “sharing”. Sharing is anathema to Capitalism because there is no monetary profit and so is vilified by calling it “socialism” or worse. Controlling the vocabulary of debate is an old and useful tactic.

When any kind of amorality becomes pervasive, it desensitizes a society with a form of instrumentalism that justifies other amoral behaviors creating a destructive pathology of civil decline. One need only recall the rise of Nazis and their vilification of Jews in pre-war Germany to understand how this dynamic works. For a recent example, how can a society justify killing someone for selling a loose cigarette while lionizing and bailing out with taxpayer money, bankers who impoverished millions with their greed? In the US today 49.7 million people qualify as poor, 80% of the total population is in or near poverty.  In the face of this calamity politicians are proposing cuts in the Food Stamp programs, Social Security, and health care. To what end are we again, it seems, being driven to the intersection of civilization vs barbarism, a society committing suicide.

When a country acts immorally it diminishes its moral authority across the board. When a government offers “facts” contrary to the truth people who are actually living it it relinquishes its moral authority, authenticity, and agency. The innocent adults and children killed by our drone strikes is a truth not ameliorated by the fact that there is always collateral damage during war. Collateral damage is a morally reprehensible argument against justice, a false use of truth invalidating claims of moral superiority over the enemy. Sadly this behavior also speaks in the names of all of citizens of the state causing the harm and that includes you and me. The US is a country in which thousands tout their Christianity and at the same time accept criminalizing feeding the hungry and homelessness. Everything is related to everything else in one way or another.

In Cleveland, police summarily executed a 12 year old boy at a playground. The boy was holding a bb gun. The same cops also threw the kid’s sister to the ground and handcuffed her for wanting to reach her dying brother. The boy died, the cops offered no first aid or care. In a news interview Police Union Chief, Jeffrey Follmer, placed absolutely no value on the 12 year old’s life – none! His callous  response? “How about this: Listen to police officers’ commands. Listen to what we tell you, and just stop … that eliminates a lot of problems.” He added, “I think the nation needs to realize that when we tell you to do something, do it.” Listen up, Nation, Jeffrey Follmer has spoken a fact which is truth for many Americans, you live in a police state – do what you’re told – or else we’ll kill you even for selling a lose cigarette. Is this American Exceptionalism? Is it justice? What kind of society have we become? What are we becoming?  We have the facts but are we ready to face truth?

There are many more examples but the foregoing seem to encapsulate a version of the social contract that is in opposition to what we believe to be normal – they portray a new normal in which truth has no moral function and human life has no value. The facts are, do what you’re told and everything will be alright, but the truth is something else. The truth is we cannot be parties to torture abroad or unwarranted killing at home unless we accept our own complicity. It is valuable to note that the most outspoken critic of CIA torture was a Congressman who himself, as a prisoner of war, was tortured by North Vietnam. Is that what it takes for people to understand that inhumanity – to be tortured themselves?

  In all of this, it is essential to understand that facts and truth are not, in fact, the same thing. Facts are devoid of morality, they simply describe and nothing more. Truths, on the other hand, are an integral aspect of moral thought and behavior, truths give facts meaning. Facts exist in a moral void and truths are a moral context. I have personally witnessed many instances of individuals spewing facts and not describing the truth, using facts to obscure the truth, to create cognitive dissonance. Lawyers and politicians do this routinely. It’s a shuck and jive the end result being that an audience or a jury never understands the truth and so defaults to the better liar.

We are, in the 21st Century, engaged in a new round of Democracy vs Capitalism. We must question. We must challenge – each of us. Time is running out on what’s left of this Democracy and what is left of a civil society because we are avoiding truth. We must tell truth to power and demand truth from them lest the ripples turn into waves and the waves into riptides of destruction. Truth is a virtue not an inconvenience, there can be no justice without it.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

The American Taliban – Part 5

The Political Utility of Poverty – Part 1

Put simply, if poverty wasn’t useful it wouldn’t exist. And what then  is its perceived value? Social control.

Consider: One American family who inherited a vast national retail chain, hold wealth equal to the entire bottom 30% of American society. Their stores, which do not pay local income taxes, sell to generally low income Americans  low cost goods mostly made overseas by Third World people earning poverty wages. This family donates millions of dollars to groups seeking, among other things, to privatize public education.

The other side of the coin: As of March 2012, 24 million Americans could not find a full-time job and have been characterized by American Taliban politicians as lazy, unmotivated, and unwilling to work and whose benefits and entitlements should be cut or eliminated. It is estimated that 46 million Americans live below the poverty line and 1 in 6 Americans struggle with hunger including 17 million children. These numbers apparently represent the American “exceptionalism” politicians are crowing about because they are not duplicated elsewhere in the Western world.  How does this work for you?

Strapped and fearful, middle-class people aren’t about to make waves; they have jobs, albeit low paying jobs and getting lower, to protect, mortgages to pay, medical insurance to pay for, credit card debt to service, and very little in the way of savings to fall back on should things go amiss. Middle-class people are trapped into a politically conservative mind-set because it is believed to be, at the very least, protective of their fragile status quo. In Wisconsin in the gubernatorial recall election earlier this year union members and their families voted for the candidate who vowed to shut down unions. Say what? Were these people fearful of losing what they have, were they delusional? Whatever else that might have motivated them they seemed to believe that voting as they did better protected their interests. The key word in this being “believe”.

Poor people on the other hand are dangerous politically because they believe they have nothing much to lose and so will be inclined to vote for candidates inclined to improve their lot hence the strategy to take away their power to vote, to disenfranchise them. Passing voter ID laws is a weapon of social control that deliberately targets  that segment of society who are more inclined to vote for socially liberal rather than American Taliban candidates. The Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania legislature, Mike Turzi, unashamedly boasted of accomplishing exactly that when a law requiring voter ID was passed in that state.

All social organization is predicated on beliefs; it is mutual beliefs that bind its members to it. All functioning societies, primitive or sophisticated, are and have been established on beliefs. Beliefs are thus the foundation stones of human association and the attendant social contracts. No shared beliefs no social contract is a hard and fast rule. To be civilized a society requires personal commitment to behavior which promotes the common good even if not all are direct beneficiaries as in the exercise of charity. Perceived fairness may be the most binding dynamic of a social contract. As John Rawls defined it in “A Theory of Justice” ,”… inequalities within a society must work to benefit the least advantaged.” In order for people to believe in and thus commit to the social contract they must believe it to be fair and it must benefit a broad social spectrum including the least advantaged.

If the bonds of belief are broken and social agreements violated a collective good no longer exists, the social contract is dissolved and so follows the society itself. The subordination and commitment of individuals to that society and its social order devolves into alienation followed by anarchy. When the number of people with nothing to lose reaches critical mass social control shifts from the personal commitments of individuals to the social order to social control via coercion and condign measures by a self-designated elite – that consequence, as has been demonstrated throughout history, is inevitable.

The smaller the portion of a society a state represents the greater the force required to maintain control. Based on the current militarization of police forces around the country and the incessant universal monitoring and covert spying on everyone (Yes, everyone- including you dear reader.) by federal agents someone somewhere has thought about these consequences. Social control replaces and trumps the social contract whenever the status quo is threatened. Correspondingly the greater the mass of those disenfranchised from the social order becomes the greater their potential force and threat. Exponentially higher levels of control as in the form of a police state must follow resulting in higher levels of resentment and resistance. One only has to watch news videos of police in action, as at the Occupy Oakland demonstrations this year, to see this is already happening. Local police departments have been given millions of tax dollars to “upgrade” their gear with military equipment to deal with anticipated future protests. The two forces, threat and control, will inevitably circle each other until one destroys the other or the destruction is mutual. Chaos ensues. Those who would conspire to demean, devalue, and destroy the civil society are playing with a Promethean Fire of grave consequence.

Poverty can no longer be acceptable if we are to have a viable society and that is not just financial poverty but spiritual poverty and opportunity poverty as well. Young people cannot graduate from college thousands of dollars in debt with no expectation but being hounded by debt collectors for the rest of their lives or menial jobs just short of servitude. Historically no amount of state sponsored suppression of an under-class majority has succeeded – those who ignore the lessons of history are bound to repeat them and poverty may prove not to be so useful as once believed.


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