We have become a society that has lost its ability to respect itself
The American Dream was shattered a long time ago, if even it ever existed
The state of civil society in the US is deeply troubling. We have just passed through a collective trauma that was defined by a toxic Presidency. But it is a mistake to blame Trump. He just happened to be there at the “right” time. And in truth, his Presidency was on trend with the latter Bush Presidency and the machinations of his team.
This is a word that describes the behaviour of a group of people in power. They have different values than the majority of Americans. Going back to Nixon, we saw this attitude first rear its head. He got caught, he got punished. But the underlying belief that “we can do whatever we want and get away with it” did not go away. Central to this concept is that “the normal rules don’t apply to me.”
Ronald Reagan and Bush Senior continued the trend with Iran-Contra, but that he got away with it, emboldened the perpetrators. Indeed, some of the Bush Jr. crew were already at the party, eg. Rumsfeld and Cheney. They learned that they can bend the rules and get away with it.
A tradition in American democracy has been to let sleeping dogs lie. Pardons are handed out, misdeeds are not hunted down, potential crimes are swept under the carpet. The new administration, despite the popular mandate for change, always seems to turn the other cheek. In this case, it seems that it is the Democrats who are the party of conscience and acquiescence, and do this to demonstrate that they are not fringe or extreme figures as they are sometimes painted to be—as if this will make them more legitimate in their detractors eyes.
President Obama was the chief apologist, letting the Bush Jr administration’s misdeeds and possible crimes slip away silently. In doing so, the perpetrators are emboldened. Obama’s reward for playing the game? The impunity of Mitch McConnell stonewalling on Merrick Garland’s confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court. Impunity stacks the court. Indeed, that is exactly what came next.
If the State has ideals, and those ideals are represented in our Constitution and the values for which it stands, those people are enemies of the State, enemies of democracy, and therefore enemies of the citizenry. By not pursuing your predecessors, you are massively disserving the citizenry and the true of democracy. We feed the impunity of the perpetrators, and like some giant succubus, it has attached itself to our society and is sucking the life out of our values and institutions. We are not angry enough. The Biden-Harris administration is not radical enough, and by the time we wake up, and they wake up, all will be lost.
Let’s review just how close we came to losing everything. For the first time in our history we had a President actually commit treason, not once, but possibly twice (conspiring with our enemies and inciting domestic terrorism). He has gotten away with it. Impunity for treason?! Next time, he will just decide to not step down.
The irony, the great big lie, is that the blue collar underclass, the angry dispossessed, threatened, mainly-white person that forms the core of support for the radical Republican agenda, is precisely the person that is hurt most by the policies of his own party.
What these people need is a path out of desperation. Their desperation is economic, brought upon them by massive dislocation caused to the job base through technological change, movement of supply chains to countries where labour costs are much lower and environmental protection standards are almost non-existent. It isn’t the company they work for that can’t compete with that, it is that they cannot compete with it. They cannot eat on those wages, they cannot live on those wages, and all that they have left is their dignity. But in truth, their dignity is savaged by the American dream, by the American narrative—that all you have to do is work hard to get ahead. That anyone can make it.
That line is a lie. It is told to those at the bottom of the ladder to make them complicit in their own subjugation. The real American dream is that the Oligarchs profit mightily from the rest of us believing that we can climb the ladder, because as long as we think we might be able to get ahead, move up, we stay quiet, don’t organise, don’t complain, don’t speak out, don’t become revolutionaries.
In fact, our whole collective narrative and psyche is so anti the tools that would allow the American working class to self-empower, that we have turned those very tools of potential salvation or relief into the enemies themselves. Imagine, we seem to hate unions. Unions have an un-American, sort of communist negative imagery about them. But unions exist to protect the workers. Most of us are workers. Very few of us are capitalists. Aspiring to be a capitalist is not the same as being one. A worker who vilifies unions, who doesn’t see how fundamentally important they are, is one doesn’t know who feeds him.
But a union is just a tool for people to pool their interests and gain leverage, because any worker standing alone will be crushed by their corporate overlord. Our casual disregard for the tools that might improve our lot, is the tragedy of American democracy. Other tools, such as access to quality education or access to health care are within the reach of a wealthy society. And yet, those who would benefit from them the most, those who need them the most, are most shrill in denouncing them as the beginnings of communism, or socialism, two words which have become so dirty as to crowd out rational discourse.
In Britain, we have a National Health Service which is cherished almost universally. Admittedly, we all like to gripe about service standards, wait times, and so on. But there is also a fundamental comfort in knowing that there is a real net beneath us, that when our health fails, and we fall, that we will be caught. That is the mark of a decent society. I don’t mean to benchmark one society against another, but the UK is a more open and more capitalist society than the US. While many in the Republican party denounce the NHS as a socialist construct, the truth is that the UK allows for the true range of competitive capitalism more than just about any other nation on earth. Politics aside, a good part of the motivation behind Brexit, was a creeping unease in the UK about competitive restraints imposed by the EU.
What I am saying is that a very small number of people in the US, let’s call them the 2% Club, have turned the narrative upon itself so firmly, that the 98% of Americans who work for a living mostly believe it, mostly believe that universal healthcare or universal education standards are communist. Most of the 98% are either suspicious of or outright anti union, anti universal healthcare, anti minimum wage, anti universal basic income—even those who need it and would benefit from the most. And what is this about? It is about money. The 2% club may belong to the left or the right, may support one party or another, but in truth, their only political affiliation is money. And when your power, wealth, and self-worth comes not from the work you do, but from the rents that your wealth generates, your attitude to everything changes, and is very different from the way the rest of us think.
Who is the 2% Club?
Just think for a moment that the 3 richest people in America have as much money between as the bottom 50%. That is 3 people v. 185 million people. That makes me sick to my stomach; I hope it does yours too.
And yet, we laud these people. We create stories about what great entrepreneurs they are. We don’t talk at all about how in most years, not one of the three paid any tax. How is it that the poorest 185 million of Americans pay to support these people? How can that be accepted, how can it be right?
The 2% own the narrative. They own the media, they produce our pop culture, they control the levers of power, and they have appropriated the American dream to fit their self-centred interests. Make no mistake, they are predators. We talk about how Wal-Mart and Amazon create so many jobs, but anyone who lives in a small town that got a Wal-Mart knows how many jobs got lost and shops went bust in town centres when the Wal-Mart opened. Amazon is even worse. We call them McJobs…but jobs is not enough, because a job that doesn’t pay you enough to survive, one the requires you to hold another, and perhaps a third just to get buy, is not a source of dignity, and without dignity, we have nothing. We should have rage, but instead, we are numb or displaced.
If you have wealth and live from this wealth, you don’t want to share it, you like feeling special. You like feeling better than everyone else. American media and culture idolize the super-rich. Pop culture is filled with it, and it feeds our collective malaise—that we are somehow losers if we aren’t rich, or at least on our way. That we are also somehow losers if we don’t think or behave as if we are part of the club—that might mean the fancy car we drive, the golf club membership, the boat, whatever illusory trapping of power that gives us comfort. And we tell ourselves that these things have given us access to the club, that our tribe is the rich or the soon-to-be-rich and that we must behave as if we are already there. That means voting like them, thinking like them, sharing the same causes.
And that is what the 2% has been so good at. They have made their values appear to be the values of Everyman, when in truth they are opposite. They have gotten the underclass to vote for them and their issues because they have been really good at spinning a lie. And the most insidious part of the lie is displacement. The righteous anger of the underclass should be towards those people and those tools which are used to keep them down—that is the policy agenda of the uber rich, of the relentless favour of regulation in favour of the capitalist over the worker. Democrat v. Republican is a stupid construct, and is itself a lie. What the battle is between is rent owners and rent payers, the capitalists v. the workers.
And if you think you are a capitalist, think again. Ask yourself this, what do you live on? Do you make the majority of your living by earning rents on the things you own, or do you get paid wages? If the answer is that you work for a living you are not a capitalist. And if you vote like one, then you are the turkey for Thanksgiving.
In the US in particular we laud the entrepreneur-billionaire to such an extent that we sweep their faults under the carpet. Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk–we get so caught up in their impact, and not enough in the cost of it, or their methods, or who got crushed along the way. These people lose the checks and balances that the rest of us face–surrounded by fatuous lackeys, they start to lose their sense of right and wrong, if it was ever intact in the first place. Bill Gates’s Microsoft has had nasty, monopolistic business practices since it was able to. Amazon is no different. Rent extraction is what this is about. Investors put up with endless losses because they believe that the company being invested in will eventually be in a semi-monopolistic positoin and be able to extract ongoing rents. Now Bezos is in the consolidation face, and buying newspapers and politicians is how he protects those rents. All companies like this need to be broken up, because society is never served by monopolies. 3 Americans possess the wealth of the bottom 50% of Americans. That is totally and utterly symbolic of what is wrong in this society. And those three people pay 0 taxes most years. Beyond wrong.
Displacement is all around us. White working class anger channelled against immigration and turned into racism is a perfect example. American racism is very real and is an important tool of the 2%. The truth instead is that immigrants contribute more to our economy than they take, and we are economically better off taking them in, than not. But this truth has been buried as blaming immigrants on your economic dislocation is a very convenient lie. It helps to keep the workers under-educated as well, so they believe this nonsense.
The culture wars are displacement. It is a massive distraction. Trans issues, who uses bathrooms, abortion rights, feminism, pronouns, racial issues…they are all distractions away from the single central issue. RESPECT. American society does not respect. We have institutionalised disrespect. The only thing we do respect is money, is wealth. As long as that is our North Star, we will wonder lost.
The 2% uses culture wars, feeds them through their control of the media as a source of distraction. If they can divide us and rile us up over so many secondary issues, the one most central issue, one of equality, that of respect, will forever be outside of our grasp. Once we learn to respect one another, we will be able to work together to build a better society. In the meantime, the 98% at the bottom of the ladder will bicker while the capitalists laugh, don’t pay taxes, and continue to live with impunity.
In this month we call PRIDE month, think about our goal instead being one of respect. Learn to respect ourselves, learn to respect others, and start voting for people who wish to pursue a civil society founded upon and based on respect.