Fractures of a Society Coming Apart

My workplace offers a nice vantage point on humanity, to observe the comings and goings of people in the world. My job is that of a parking ramp cashier employed by the local city government. I sit in a booth and my purpose is rather simple, that of customer service. I serve the public and I take seriously this social role, as it is what I’m paid for. It’s true that, in my introversion, I’m not emotionally effusive, extraverted, and gregarious with customers. I can be perfunctorial in being a bureaucratic functionary, but still I go through the motions and play the script to the best of my ability, certainly to a greater degree than some of my coworkers. Here is my standard protocol, rarely with any deviation: I greet people, treat them politely, work quickly, try to count my money accurately, generally do my job well, and then send my customers on their way by telling them to have a good day, a lovely evening, a nice weekend, or whatever is appropriate. Then I nod my head or even slightly doff my hat, in a somewhat formal acknowledgement of the person before me and as a signal that our interaction has come to a conclusion, and sometimes this elicits an amused smile from the customer. Formality is my default, in that I tend to sublimate my personality into my professional role.

I’ve been a cashier off and on since the 1990s and I’ve been in my present position coming on a quarter of a century. I rarely have issues with anyone, as I’m conflict-avoidant in wanting to keep things simple and smooth. I don’t like unnecessary stress and so I try to keep it low key. The job has become a routine at this point and, having had much practice, I usually know how to deal with various situations. I don’t tend to react to much that happens at work, no matter how a customer acts. If someone is particularly friendly to me, I’ll muster a smile and try to respond in kind. Or if they tell a joke, I might pretend to be amused. And if a customer is upset or unhappy, I’ll become extremely formal and even less emotive. But most often, one customer is the same as the next, a stream of humanity that passes by my window. In a single year, I may have had hundreds of thousands of customers go through my line. I try to treat each person as an individual human being, although after a while, particularly late in a shift, it can become repetitively mindless.

That mindlessness is where I was at last night. The shift was longer than normal, since I was filling in for my co-worker and so working alone. It wasn’t stressful, though, as the students are out of town and most university employees are on vacation. So there I was after a long day ready to go home and relax, but not in a bad mood or anything, just winding down my shift. Someone pulls up in my lane and nothing seemed out of the ordinary about the individual. In typical fashion, I greeted him as I would greet anyone else with a simple ‘Hello’, but as is common he wasn’t paying attention as he scrounged around in his car. I wasn’t offended as I’m used to people being distracted. Most likely, he was looking for his ticket or wallet, not that it was any of my concern what he was specifically doing. It generally isn’t important, assuming there is no long line of cars. Besides, it’s my job to serve people and, as I have no where to go, I’m not particularly in a hurry. I get paid the same, no matter how long a customer waits in my lane.

So, fully in automatic service mode, I patiently and calmly waited until he turned around. Then he gave me an odd look and said something that I heard as, “Aren’t you going to say something?” I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly, but I didn’t take it as having any grand significance. So, my response was to ask him for his ticket in order to proceed with the transaction. Apparently, that was not the response he desired. He asked me, “Aren’t you going to greet me?” At that point, I felt flustered and uncertain what to say. I explained to him that I had greeted him, but he would have none of it. He started rudely lecturing me about being polite and told me that I should learn manners. This pissed me off and I suggested that maybe he should learn manners and I added that I bet I wasn’t the first one to tell him this either.* This wasn’t the most optimal response on my part and, in reflection, it makes me sad thinking about it, but in the moment his aggressive attitude caught me off guard and immediately put me on the defense. The situation unsurprisingly didn’t improve after that, in his then threatening that, “I’m going to watch you” — well, if he had watched me the first time, he’d have known that I had given him a greeting and, as with the rest of my customer transactions that shift, it would have remained pleasant. Oh well… he finally went away, the best of all possible outcomes at that point.

There were many things that I found irritating. He was being hypocritical in demanding respect when he offered none, in being rude while complaining about how he perceived me as being rude. To be honest, there was a more basic aspect to my annoyance. He was demanding something of me, demanding a specific response, demanding that I should submissively comply and show deference. I’m just some working class schmuck trying to get through my day and this guy thinks I owe him something, as if he is more worthy than me, as if I’m obligated to accept my supposed inferiority in being scolded and berated for no reason other than his being higher up the class ladder.** And if I wasn’t unionized, I would have had to demean myself and be conciliatory out of fear for my continued employment. The implied threat in such exchanges is very much real, as such implied threats are what enforce and maintain a class-based society.*** In this case, the threat was far from veiled, in that his overtly stated warning that he was going to watch me seemed to suggest there would be some kind of consequence if I did not do as I was told, if I did not shape up and bow down appropriately the next time. It makes me wonder. If in watching me he decides that I have failed to correctly subordinate myself and comply with his demands, is he going to seek to punish me for my transgressions against his moral code of proper cashier behavior in how people like him deserve to be treated? And if so, what punishment do I deserve to teach me to know my place?

That is the worst part, the greater social import behind it, what it means in the context of the society we find ourselves in. There is a reason for the dynamic that happened, as he was part of the most common demographic of customer that causes problems. He was an upper middle class white guy, the stereotypical patriarch in our society (for context, I have never had a poor minority customer lecture me or throw a tantrum; it just does not happen). He had a nice new SUV that was recently washed, his attire was high-quality and clean-cut, and everything about him was well-groomed. He put off the signals of someone who is economically well off in society, someone who knows it and wants others to know it. And going by his behavior, he was clearly used to being in a position of authority such that he could demand others to do what he wanted and expect compliance and deference. He commanded respect, so he thought. What he didn’t know is that I don’t play that game. I treat all my customers the same in egalitarian fashion (no toast for you, whether you’re rich or poor). Whatever privileges he normally receives in his professional role and socioeconomic position do not apply to paying for his parking ticket. He is no one special, as far as I’m concerned.

It was the threat, implied or not so implied, behind his behavior that got my hackles up. Being someone likely with influence and connections, he could try to get me fired. Maybe he is part of the powerful downtown business association with personal friends in positions of political power, such as on the city council. Or maybe he is just generally used to throwing his weight around and getting his way. I wouldn’t be surprised if he calls to talk to one of my bosses or sends a formal letter of complaint to the city manager. And if I wasn’t unionized, he very well could get me fired. I’m sure that he is oblivious to the privilege he wields in being able to arrogantly act in that way and get away with it, to lecture and demand and threaten others without repercussion. Unawareness of one’s privilege is the greatest of privileges. On the other hand, I know his personal issues had nothing to do with me. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is regularly rude and arrogant, bossy and snippy with a wide variety of people. Maybe this has become as mindless to him as my own behavior can sometimes be when I’m at work. That was the clash between us, two different people playing out two different scripts and finding themselves pulled into a scenario where typical responses did not apply.

In a high inequality society such as ours, there are yet other scripts that shape behavior and maybe we were being drawn into one of these scripts that we all learn from a lifetime of enculturation and media narratization: managerial class vs working class, capitalist plutocrat vs average Joe, liberal elite vs real American, or some other variation. With Donald Trump as president, class antagonism is at an all time high, and this grows worse as what was once an inequality gap grows into an inequality gulf. Back in 1981, Bernie Sanders in a television interview quaintly complained that, “the fact that in our society, theoretically a Democratic Society, you have a handful of people who control our economy. You have maybe two percent of the population that owns one third of the entire wealth of America, eighty percent of the stocks, 90 percent of the bonds, and these people have incredible power. They sit on huge corporations like the Chase Manhattan Bank, the multinational corporations, and they determine the destiny of our entire country as you know. Perhaps 50% of our population has so given up on the democratic process they don’t even vote and those are primarily poor people” (interview with Phil Donahue, segment titled “Socialism in New England,” The Today Show). That is a sad commentary on our present society. How far we have fallen since then!

Now to be considered part of the economic elite you have to be in the .1% which is a great distance from the bottom of the top 2%, much less mere upper middle class. In its own way, to be upper middle class is distressing and requires one to constantly flaunt one’s position and privilege to demonstrate that one matters at all, as the reality is that the descent from middle to lower class is not that far these days, sometimes requiring only one wrong misstep or a minor accident of fate. To be filthy rich would mean not having to deal with the peons at all or else to have no concern for them. The richest of the rich would never bother to even condescend so far as to lecture someone like me, even in the rare circumstance that they would be forced to acknowledge my existence in the slightest.**** The worst insult to the upper middle class white guy I butted heads with is that he didn’t have quite enough privilege that he could avoid or ignore someone like me and, instead, someone like me had the audacity to treat him as an equal. I shamed him and, despite his aggressive way of acting superior, I dismissed his presumption of authority. “No respect, I tell ya. No respect.”

I could simply leave it at that, but there is something about the altercation that fascinates me in looking back on it with psychological distance. I know the world this guy comes from, whether or not he has any sense of my own view of things. I grew up in the upper middle class and so my father too was a white guy of that variety, in fact a businessman who worked in factory management and later as a business management professor, both positions of great respect and authority. He never flaunted his privilege in an oppressive or arrogant way, but the privilege was present and it was obvious to others. And I can see the privileges I too had growing up. There was nothing that stopped me from aspiring to also become an upper middle class white guy, as I had everything going for me. It just wasn’t in my personality to follow that path to worldly success, power, and respect. Apparently, I internalized too much of my mother’s lingering working class mentality from her own childhood.

Still, I understand the attraction and the difficulties in social roles of that sort. Being an upper middle class white person can be difficult with immense expectations and pressure. To embrace that social identity, whether born into it or gaining it, is to take on a heavy load of social and historical baggage. It’s also plain time-consuming. On top of full-time careers, both of my parents worked the equivalent of a second job in maintaining, repairing, and cleaning the house and yard so that it was always perfectly presentable as is the standard of upper middle class. They also spent a lot of time on finances and investments, along with much time on all the social organizations they belonged to that define and preoccupy the upper middle class existence. It’s tiresome and endless. My mother practically has a week-long anxiety attack every time someone plans to come over to the house for a visit. To be upper middle class means to be judged by one’s possessions and appearance, constantly judged in every area of one’s life. It is to live as if on a stage always in the middle of a performance, maybe even performing when at home alone with one’s family. It’s a demanding social role and identity that, in many cases, might never allow for the facade to be lowered.

The guy I was dealing with was clearly a professional of some sort, maybe a business owner or a bank manager or doctor. To achieve and maintain such a socioeconomic position requires immense work, effort, and sacrifice. I didn’t go that direction in life because I don’t have it in me to adhere to such demanding rules and norms, but obviously this guy had some talent for playing the game, for conforming to the status quo, for being a good cog in the machine. He expected deference and submission from his perceived inferiors probably because he had spent his whole life giving deference and submission to his perceived superiors. Now that he had reached middle age it was his turn to be rewarded, as he thought had been promised according to the supposedly meritocratic social order. As far as I know, he might hate his job, hate his wife and kids, and hate everything about his life. Maybe he wanted to be a park ranger or artist (or dinosaur) when he was younger, but he gave up on his dreams to do what his parents and peers expected of him, in going down the path of least resistance. Maybe he never even consciously was aware of these expectations at all in so absolutely conforming to them that he came to identify with them, having lost his own sense of independent self in the process. Or maybe he once loved his job and his life but the world slowly wore him down until he became burned out and resentful.

The pressure of this social Darwinian capitalist system is immense. To climb that ladder, you have to follow your tightly-scripted role perfectly or else be punished and find yourself falling into failure or mediocrity, passed over and disrespected. To be an upper middle class white guy means a very specific identity to be maintained, always with your game face on, always pretending you are confident and know what you’re doing, that you are an authority figure standing above the dirty masses. Few people in our society, even among the economically well off, are happy and satisfied. The conflicts that erupt have little to do with the individuals involved, even as the anxiety and animosity flares up in conflicts between people. Wealthier white people aren’t immune to the psychological strain. Nor is the working class who has to take the brunt of it. It’s difficult for all sides to not get caught up in these forces so far beyond the individual. Everything and everyone is under pressure, and the results are rarely happy.

These are the fractures of a society coming apart. What we usually notice are the dramatic events like school shootings, church bombings, and mass terrorist attacks. Or we worry about the rise of violence, the mental illness among the growing homeless population, and a sense of social breakdown in our communities. And then there are the protests and riots that demonstrate a sense of ill at ease in the populace. This is what the corporate media, national and local, obsesses over. But the everyday reality of a system under stress is how it gets felt in the small interactions, the social chafing that causes emotional rawness and irritation. We have less patience with one another in our being quicker to react, to judge, and to verbally accost one another. This is what slowly and imperceptibly frays the social fabric.

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* There is an amusing thought I had. I was reading about violence and aggression rates, as compared between the American North and South. This has to do with which states are or are not honor cultures. There are a bunch of fascinating studies that demonstrate this contrast, but a particular study showed the difference in certain telling details. The study in question had a staged situation where the test subject was in a room with an actor who played a role given by the researchers. This actor was to do a total of 11 specific irritating behaviors, from calling the test subject a nickname such as ‘Slick’ to throwing pieces of paper at him.

The response by Southern males was quite different than by Northern males. The Southerner tended to not respond at all, at least initially. They remained quiet and just took the irritating behavior, that is until they reached the fifth transgression. Then the Southerner went ballistic and, at this point, the researchers had to stop the experiment for fear that someone was going to get physically hurt. There was no warning other than the silence itself, which no doubt another Southern would take as a warning. If you’re around Southerners, a silent non-response might be a very bad thing and so tread carefully.

Now the Northerner guys went about it in another way. The moment the irritating behavior began they were voicing complaints. They tried to reason with their assailant, maybe with the assumption that he simply didn’t realize he was being irritating. When the actor in the study continued their rude behavior, the test subjects simply stopped responding and ignored any further insults to their person. They didn’t blow up, as did the Southerners. I wonder if that is because the Northerners in a sense had already expressed themselves, rather than suppressing their anger and allowing it to build up. It was a way of managing their own emotional experience in order to manage the social situation.

The latter Northern style applies to the scenario I was in  . This is a very Northern state, Iowa, that is part of the Upper Midwest. There is not much Southern culture to be found here, as emigration from the South to Iowa has been extremely low. Despite our class differences, my customer and I were both Northerners. We dealt with irritation in a direct fashion by both immediately complaining to the other. That may have defused the situation, as we both gave voice to our feelings and on a basic level had our respective experiences acknowledged. We mutually agreed that we were unhappy and there was nothing hidden, nothing repressed. We just let it out — the tension was vented and quickly dissipated. It didn’t escalate beyond a minute or so of expressing ourselves.

As a Northerner, this seems like a healthy way of dealing with things. Waiting for a situation to worsen such that it turns into a physical fight where someone gets injured or killed doesn’t seem like a great outcome. When some guy does a heinous violent crime, so often the neighbors, when interviewed, say that he was a quiet guy. Maybe silence is a bad thing, as a general rule. Complain openly and often. It’s good for you and for society. Verbal conflict is better than physically violent outbursts.

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** As a side note, I should point out that conflicts like this rarely happen. The last event similar to this occurred about a year and a half ago (Class Anxiety of Privilege Denied). That last time did not even include an argument and, as arguing with customers is so extremely rare, I can’t even remember the last time this happened. As a practice, I just don’t argue at work. I sometimes go several years without any major event of any kind. Even most upper class white people are normally well-behaved. Heck, this guy has been through my lane before and somehow has managed to never before respond in this way.

I’m sure there were other factors involved. Maybe his father died or his wife made him sleep on the couch the night before or maybe he just woke up feeling grumpy for no reason. Considering the high stress and health problems of so many Americans, there doesn’t need to be a particular external cause of being in a foul mood. General crappiness has become the social norm of our society, exacerbated by high inequality (see Keith Payne, Richard Wilkinson, and Kate Picket). Maybe I should be shocked this kind of thing doesn’t happen more often.

None of that explains, though, the behavior and the dynamic in this individual case. Such a situation is rare and, when it does happen, it is almost entirely limited to upper middle class white people and usually middle aged at that, the kind of person who is probably at the peak of their career and socioeconomic position within society. As a demographic, such people come no where close to representing the majority of my customers. So, why are they so consistently among the majority in causing problems?

If stress and ill health was the primary cause, the poor (both minorities and whites) should be going berserk on a daily basis and yet they aren’t. As one goes down the economic ladder, there is no trend toward worsening antisocial and impolite behavior — if anything, the opposite. Why is that?

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*** Such implied threats bother me to an extreme. It may be an unconscious wielding of power and privilege, but it’s nonetheless real and potentially harmful to those who don’t deserve it. It is all the more real, in class being integral to capitalist realism, that someone like this guy has the additional privilege of remaining oblivious and so not having to face the moral consequences of his own behavior. He can swagger around in making the lives of others miserable and most people in service jobs will bow down to him simply out of an instinct for self-preservation. He no doubt has grown accustomed to such treatment and now expects it as default.

It’s one of the most depressing aspects of living in in this kind of rigid class hierarchy. And it has real world consequences we see every day. It’s the reason that rich white people can regularly commit crimes in our society without any penalty or else much less penalty. When they cause problems and on the rare occasions the police do show up, they don’t have to worry about getting arrested, much less beat up or shot. They know they will always be given the benefit of the doubt. And often they’ll be given second, third, etc chances, as they can hire the best lawyers who will find legal loopholes while so often judges treat them with kids gloves. We know this from the data, in how people are treated differently for the exact same crimes by police and in courts depending on their demographics and appearance.

It’s frustrating. To be lower class is to be constantly aware of this anti-democratic injustice. As workers serving the interests of those who hold the power, we can’t afford to be willfully ignorant in the way can the privileged. It doesn’t even require any malice for the wealthier to benefit from privilege, as all they need to do is act according to that privilege by taking it for granted. The privileged individual, in their unconscious belligerence, can always claim innocence as the system of power is something they didn’t create in that they were born into it and inherited it without any stated consent. It just happens as the way the world is. Still, they benefit from it as long as they don’t openly resist it and fight against it, and so they remain complicit and morally culpable.

This came up the other day with my father. As I said, he isn’t someone to flaunt privilege, but neither is he one to be all that aware of it either. We went out to breakfast and the regular worker was serving us in taking our order. It was at the nearby Hy-Vee grocery store, not exactly a high-class place. Our server is a college student, probably tired and overworked and underpaid. My dad had previously complained that, although courteous and a hard worker, this server wasn’t particularly personable in being overly focused on his work, such as intently looking down as he enters our order into the cash register. It’s not that he is unfriendly for he always greets us. It’s just that he isn’t into small talk and doesn’t flash a big smile at customers.

Anyway, my father decided to chide him for not being more friendly in an extraverted fashion, since that is what my dad prefers as an extravert. And with an implied if unintentional threat that any customer wields to some extent in complaining, he was able to get some small talk out of him. Like the upper middle class white guy I dealt with at work, my father also presents himself with all the outward forms of class position. He was demanding something of this young guy and so similarly there is all that goes with that, with the potential threat being even greater as that is not a unionized workplace. All my father has to do is make a single complaint to the manager to make this server’s life miserable and maybe cause him to lose his job. None of that means my father has ill intent. But what it does mean is that my father has grown used to being able to demand things of others and get what he demands without any thought to why he is able to gain such easy compliance.

An implied threat is still a real threat and it is all the more powerful for never having to be stated. It is irrelevant that my father would not intentionally to do anything to harm another person. He doesn’t have to, as this Hy-Vee worker doesn’t know my father’s intentions any more than I knew the intentions of the guy at my own workplace. Such implied threats operate by being built into how the entire system functions. Unionized labor is the only thing that throws a wrench into the class hierarchy. But unionized labor has lost power as laws were passed to restrict what unions could do and as union-busting has chipped away at membership. Few workers have any respect, any way to stand up for themselves, to defend themselves with a sense of pride and real force… as long as they don’t have a democratic union behind them. That is equally true of democracy in general, which is the greater problem. As inequality rises, democracy declines. And it isn’t as if we had much functioning democracy in the first place.

This is all the more reason that all of us should become more aware. This is particularly true for those who, by choice or chance, find themselves in the position of wielding class or racial privileges. To hold power over someone, even if done with no bad intention, is to affect them and, one might add, is to affect the individual with the power as well. Their perception and behavior is shaped accordingly. We need to be kind, compassionate, and careful in how we treat others. This is true of everyone, of course, but it is a thousand times more true for those in a society where their greater position potentially asserts threat to those below them. If it helps, think of this as noblesse oblige: Don’t merely “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” but more importantly ask what you owe society, what you owe the disadvantaged and underprivileged, the least among us.

There is a moral responsibility we should accept in how we affect others, positively and negatively. We aren’t only individuals but part of social orders that inevitably are moral orders, and the order that exists must be maintained and enforced, whether directly by what we do or done on our behalf. A free society of free people doesn’t just happen. It has to be chosen, again and again and again. And we have to demand it and fight for it. That begins in the smallest of ways as expressed in how we treat others. The very least any of us can do is to not act like petty tyrants, to instead simply be kind. On a basic human level, we really are equals and should look upon others in that light.

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**** Wealthier people, at least in high inequality societies, act more contentedly relaxed and pleased with themselves, disengaged and aloof toward others. It is as if they have no worries in the world, much less concern for and interest in other people, specifically when most other people are of a lower class than they and so have no power over them to affect their lives (see Science Daily’s Rich Man, Poor Man: Body Language Can Indicate Socioeconomic Status, Study Shows & Cody Delistraty’s Rich or poor? Your face might give it away). For most of us in this society, this plutocratic indifference may seem so shockingly obvious as to go without saying, but apparently it needs to be said and then repeated ad infinitum. It’s interesting that people do perceive the rich as being ‘cold’ and it’s hard to argue against this being accurate (Carolyn Gregoire, How Money Changes the Way You Think and Feel) — indeed, the rich are more likely to be morally compromised and break rules, less likely to cooperate and be generous, and on and on.

Furthermore, it’s not limited to outward behavior and expression for social relations shape psychology and neurocognitive development. To be in a higher socioeconomic status manifests as lower ability to empathize with others and accurately read the emotional experience of others, whereas the poor tend to be comparative geniuses in this area (see Cathy O’Neil’s Make Rich People Read Chekhov). So, maybe it was somewhat predictable that, even as I was paying attention to this upper middle class white guy while he scrounged in his car, he paid so little attention to me that he didn’t even realize I had greeted him. As he presumably saw me as his inferior, I wasn’t judged worthy of being given his full attention. Those further up the social ladder aren’t in the habit of going to the effort of understanding those below them and so they literally have less ability to do so, but this also means less awareness about how unaware they are. It’s a self-enclosed lack of empathy based on a crippled theory of mind. They are psychologically and emotionally blind.

This doesn’t make rich people evil. It’s simply an artifact of inequality and the greater the inequality the more extreme would be these attitudes of disengagement and disinterest, disconnection and dissociation. As such, one would expect to find little, if any, of this kind of thing among egalitarian tribes like the Piraha where there is no economic inequality and no social hierarchy at all in lacking any social roles or positions of authority with no chiefs, no council of elders, no shamans, and no warrior class. There is nothing natural and normal about a high inequality society, but if it is all we’ve known it is hard for us to be aware of it. Consciously thinking about our position within a rigid hierarchy is not something we are taught in a society such as ours that we like to pretend is an egalitarian democracy, even though in our heart of hearts we all know that is total bullshit, however comforting is the lie.

The upper middle class white guy described in this post is not abnormal for our society, even if he is abnormal by the standard of most of human existence. Prior to modern civilization, inequality and hierarchy was rather limited in distance and scope (e.g., an early feudal lord lived among and attended social events with the nearby peasants). In fact, the high inequality seen now in the United States has never before existed in any society at any historical or prehistorical period. This is an unprecedented situation. Now consider that no high inequality society has ever lasted long before having events, one way or another, forcing the social order back toward greater equality: international war, civil war, revolution, famine, plague, ecological disaster, civilizational collapse, etc (Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler). We are approaching a new period of leveling. And it is likely to be far worse this time around.

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On Conflict and Stupidity
American Class Bigotry
Class Divide and Communication Failure
Inequality Divides, Privilege Disconnects

Eating the Poor

Early in their careers, the Wachowski brothers (or rather sisters) wrote a movie script about eating the rich. “The script was too disturbing,” Andy (now Lilly) Wachowski said, as quoted in a 1999 New York Times piece. “We showed it to some people in Hollywood who said: ‘This is a bad idea. I can’t make this. I’m rich.’ ” They never could find anyone to fund it and so it was never made.

What immediately occurred to me simply reversing the roles in the script make it perfectly acceptable to the moneyed interests in Hollywood. A quarter century earlier in 1973 the novel Soylent Green was made into a major movie with a well known lead actor, Charlton Heston. It received multiple awards and honors and, remaining popular, has had repeated releases in every format. At this point, it has made immense profit.

So, why is it that Hollywood is fine with portraying poor people being eaten but not rich people? Well, as one Hollywood figure explained, “I can’t make this. I’m rich.”

Hollywood is a business, but not everything is about profit. Even if a movie about eating the rich could make more money than hundreds of other movies that get made every year, the profit motive can only go so far. The rich are as or more concerned with maintaining their position in society, which means maintaining the image that the dirty masses can’t touch them, literally and metaphorically. The Wachowskis didn’t only make a movie about the rich being eaten but specifically eaten by the poor and homeless. That is a step too far in a capitalist plutocracy.

Fantasies are fine, except when they hit too close to home. Class war isn’t something we are supposed to talk about. Or rather we are only supposed to talk about it when it portrays the rich winning. Hollywood companies are fine with rich people being portrayed as evil, as long as they are also portrayed as dominant and powerful. But even making portraying the reality of plutocratic rule too starkly can be considered unacceptable.

When Jonathan Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal”, many criticized the eating of babies. In his defense, he pointed out that the killing of babies was what was already happening to the poor, specifically in Ireland, and he simply made it explicit. The sensitive souls in respectable society were fine with mass torture and murder. They simply didn’t want to be forced to acknowledge it. Even so, he was able to get his writing published and widely read. But if he had written a similar piece about eating the rich, he would have been censored, his career destroyed, and probably imprisonment following. Although considered in bad taste, it was acceptable for him to write about eating the poor. As true then, still true today.

In a talk, William McDonough spoke of a visit to Birkenau in Auschwitz: “I stood in the center Birkenau camp which is a mile in diameter three, miles in circumference. And I realized that engineers and architects had come together to design a giant killing machine. If design is the worst, the first signal of human intention, this was the signal of the worst of human intention. And I thought to myself at what point is a designer standing there say wait a minute you’re asking me to do this.”

He describes how every aspect of the camp and all that supported its functioning was carefully designed by architects, engineers, and scientists. This included how humans would be processed and used, including the bodies. From slave labor in the factories to stacking the bodies, it all had to be carefully calculated and planned out. Efficiency was key. It was a modern project embodying scientific principles. Many of the chemicals still in use today were first experimented on humans in these camps.

McDonough came to the realization that this mentality applied to the modern world in general. The way we design buildings and infrastructure is toxic and self-destructive. Our society is a highly efficient killing machine that results in illness, suffering, and early death. He wasn’t being merely dramatic for effect. We see this in the increasing use of carcinogenic chemicals and the rise of cancer. The modern world is designed to be efficient and profitable, not to be sustaining of life and well being.

One might note that the greatest victims, as always, are the poor. The rich can escape the pollution of old industrial centers, distance themselves from toxic dumps, and hide away from environmental destruction. The poor, on the other hand, are trapped. In the Swiftian sense, the poor are being eaten by this system that processes and uses their life and labor to build the beautiful world of the rich. According to the Social Darwininan aspirations and capitalist realism dreams of plutocrats, that is how it should be. But you won’t find a well-funded blockbuster Hollywood movie portraying this real world dystopia in all of its gory details, much less such a movie that radically imagines an inversion of power and a reversal of victimization.

To understand how this society operates, you have to notice not only what is present but also what is missing, what is allowable and what is not.

This is a struggle for power.

“[D]espite their misgivings, conservatives have reconciled themselves to capitalism because the expansion of the market has also meant the growth of the private sphere of domination and control. . . . [C]onservatism is about the freedom and ability of some people to dominate, control, and extract from others, which capitalist inequality and hierarchy make possible.”
Peter Kolozi

The United States is a plutocracy. But ultimately that means oligarchy. The reason that the wealthy rule is because wealth is power. I would clarify a point, though. Wealth isn’t limited to direct power over the masses for it also allows the wealthy to control all aspects of society, even those not directly related to wealth.

The plutocrats aren’t powerful merely because of wealth. It is that they are part of a ruling elite that works together to shut out everyone else, to exclude the majority not just from wealth but more importantly from power. This means maintaining their control of privileges and resources, by controlling the system of politics, economics, media, and education.

This is why the United States is such a brutally oppressive society. Much of what the ruling elite does comes at great costs to themselves, although at even greater costs to everyone else, which is the point in always ensuring others are harmed more. First and foremost, the purpose is social control. Wealth is a means to that end, but there are many other means to that end: military imperialism, police-intelligence state, mass incarceration, media propaganda, and much else.

It’s not so much class war, in the simple sense. “This is a struggle for power,” as Caitlin Johnstone makes clear in the piece below. And at present most Americans are losing the fight. This isn’t a metaphor. Millions of Americans are victims — locked away or otherwise trapped in the legal system, struggling in poverty and homelessness, sick and dying because lack of healthcare. Millions more are barely getting by and, out of fear, kept in their place as slaves to the system. The power and its consequences are concretely and viscerally real.

It is a war with growing numbers of casualties. But if the American public could realize the power that exists in numbers, it could instead become a revolution.

On a related note, thoughts along these lines lead straight to issues of inequality. As with oligarchy, inequality isn’t only about who has most of the wealth. As a divide in wealth indicates a divide in power, what this means is a divide in political membership and representation. It becomes harder for most Americans to participate in politics, partly because they don’t have the time or money to participate.

It requires ever larger amounts of wealth and resources, not to mention crony connections, to engage a successful campaign. And for those who do get elected, they do so either by belonging to the oligarchy or by becoming indebted to the oligarchy. This is why, as Johnstone points out, studies have shown that politicians mostly do whatever the rich want them to do.

As the rich gain greater power, they gain greater leverage to take even more power. It’s a cycle that has only one end point, total authoritarianism. That is, unless we the public stop it.

Some ask why does it matter that an elite has more money than everyone else. What an unbelievably naive question that is. To anyone who is confused on the issue, I’d suggest that they simply open their eyes.

* * *

The Real Reason The Elites Keep Killing Single-Payer
by Caitlin Johnstone

The word “oligarchy” gets thrown around a lot in progressive discourse, usually to highlight the problem of money in politics, but not many people seem to really settle in and grapple with the hefty implications of what that word actually means. If you say that America is an oligarchy (and it certainly is, which we’ll get to in a second), you’re not merely saying that there is too much money in US politics or that the wealthy have an unfair amount of power in America. Per definition, you are saying that a small class of elites rule over you and your nation, like a king rules over his kingdom.

You’ve studied history, in school if nowhere else. How often have you read about kings voluntarily relinquishing their thrones and handing power to their subjects out of the goodness of their hearts? Once someone makes it to the very top of a society, how often have you known them to eagerly step down from that power position in order to give the people self-rule?

This isn’t about money, this is about power. The wealthiest of the wealthy in America haven’t been doing everything they can to stave off universal healthcare and economic justice in order to save a few million dollars. They haven’t been fighting to keep you poor because they are money hoarders and they can’t bare to part with a single penny from their trove. It’s so much more sinister than that: the goal isn’t to keep you from making the plutocrats a little less wealthy, the goal is to keep you from having any wealth of your own.

Power is intrinsically relative: it only exists in relation to the amount of power that other people have or don’t have. If we all have the same amount of government power, then none of us has any power over the other. If, however, I can figure out a way to manipulate the system into giving me 25 percent more governmental power than anyone else, power has now entered into the equation, and I have an edge over everyone else that I can use to my advantage. But that edge only exists due to the fact that you’re all 25 percent less powerful than I am. If you all become five percent more powerful, my power is instantly diminished by that much, in the same way a schoolyard bully would no longer enjoy the same amount of dominance if everyone at school suddenly grew five percent bigger and stronger.

Here’s where I’m going with all this: the ruling elites have set up a system where wealth equals power. In order for them to rule, in order for them to enjoy the power of kings, they necessarily need to keep the general public from wealth. Not so that they can have a little more money for themselves in case they want to buy a few extra private jets or whatever, but because their power is built upon your lack of power. By keeping you from having a few thousand extra dollars of spending money throughout the year, they guarantee that you and your fellow citizens won’t pool that extra money toward challenging their power in the wealth-equals-power paradigm that they’ve set up for themselves. […]

You can see, then, why the oligarchs must resist socialism and populism tooth and claw. You can see why their media propaganda outlets are so ferociously dedicated to tearing down any sincere attempt to fight the Walmart economy or allow an inch of ground to be gained in bringing any economic power to ordinary Americans. By asking for economic justice, you may think that you are simply asking for a small slice of the enormous pie the billionaire class could never hope to eat in a single lifetime, but what you are actually doing is asking for their crown, their throne and their scepter. You are making yourself a direct existential threat to their dynasty.

This is why they fought so hard to stomp out the Sanders movement. It wasn’t that Sanders himself was a threat to them, it’s that a large group of the unwashed masses was pooling their wealth together and leaping over seemingly insurmountable obstacles using nothing but tiny $27 donations as fuel. Imagine if Americans had more disposable income to invest in a better future for their kids by pointing it at changing America’s political landscape? Imagine a populist movement where Americans pushing for economic justice can suddenly all afford to pool a bunch of $270 donations to support a beloved candidate or agenda? Or $2,700? Under the current money-equals-power paradigm, the will of the people would become unstoppable, and the US power establishment would be forced to reshape itself in a way that benefits the people instead of benefitting a few billionaires.

* * *

Basalat Raja, Jun 24

This is why you will find them behaving in ways that are opposite to their “direct interests” — if you assume that their “direct interests” are making more money. A prosperous middle class will make the rich even richer, because more of us will be able to buy the products from the companies that they own large amounts of shares in, leading to more profits for those companies, and obviously, lifting share prices, making them richer.

But that means less control, since economically contented people are harder to herd. If you have a decent job and a decent house, it’s harder to tell you that Mexicans/Muslims/Russians/gays/etc. have stolen your job, etc.

Class Divide and Communication Failure

There is a class divide that makes communication almost impossible.

If you are part of the population that is upwardly mobile and/or economically stable (mostly upper middle class and above), you aren’t feeling desperate and any political concerns are rarely immediate threats to your life, your family, or your community. Such people live in relative comfort, security, and privilege. They may not be super wealthy and still have problems like anyone else, but none of it is overwhelming most of the time.

It is far far different for the rest of the population, the downwardly mobile and economically precarious, struggling working class, the poor, and the unemployed. These people know in their personal experience that society is dysfunctional, that the economy is rigged, and that the government doesn’t represent them. They directly and personally feel what it means to mistrust and sometimes even fear one’s government, to know that they are on their own with little to save them if everything goes wrong.

These two classes live in separate worlds. The minority who are doing fairly well or, for some, doing great have absolutely no clue what is going on with majority of the population. It is a total disconnect. They don’t understand what it means to feel desperation, anger, outrage, and outright fear, verging on paranoia at times. In the middle-to-upper class defending the status quo, the lower classes unsurprisingly see them as part of the problem, even though the reality is most comfortable people are simply ignorant and only complicit to the degree that ignorance is willful, but mostly it is passive ignorance.

Most Americans no longer trust the government. Most Americans no longer think there is a functioning democracy. Yet the middle-to-upper classes are still acting as if nothing has fundamentally changed, just some reform needed, maybe an occasional signing of a petition or the joining in a march, but just keep on voting for the lesser evil. This is why Trump has been such a shock. Some of the comfortable people are suddenly feeling a bit uncomfortable, a feeling that the lower classes have been feeling for a long time.

Will we finally get to a point where the class divide breaks down? Will the comfortable finally start paying attention, instead of remaining selfish assholes seeking to maintain the status quo? Will those on the bottom of society finally realize the average middle class professional is not the ultimate enemy and instead is simply a clueless ignoramus who, in reality, is no more represented by government than the poor? Will the American public, across all divides, finally see that the problems we face are shared concerns?

American Class Bigotry

“The system is still structured in such a way that one percent of the population owns 43 percent of the wealth, you end up with an embrace of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, especially upper–middle class and above, but the gay poor, the lesbian poor, they’re still catching hell . . . It’s not just black. It’s white. It’s brown. It’s the structure of a system . . . it’s worse [than ever].”
~ Cornel West

American society is divided by class and, ideology and parties aside, united according to class. Class identity and class conflict are the defining features.

That is because the lives of Americans are determined by class more than anything else, more than even race. Poor whites and poor blacks have more in common than either has with wealthy whites and wealthy blacks. This is seen in the most basic aspects of lives. The poor are more likely to live next to, work with, attend school with, be friends with, or even marry a poor person of another race than they are to do any of those things with a wealthy person of the same race. The class social order creates entirely different realities that Americans live within.

Racial animosity among the poor is often a result of proximity, not distance. But even then race is rarely the most important issue in the average person’s life. Most people simply worry about daily concerns of life, of getting by and making ends meet. It’s primarily the more economically privileged who have greater ability to racially segregate themselves by living in suburbs, gated communities, and gentrified neighborhoods, by attending elite colleges and sending their kids to private schools.

It is the middle-to-upper classes, a minority of the population, that hold not just most of the wealth but also most of the power and influence along with the privileges, opportunities, and resources that go with it. They don’t tend to worry about their next pay check, medical bills, paying rent, factory closings, home foreclosures, etc. In their greater luxury, these people are free to concern themselves about political galas, partisan campaigning, fundraising events, party primaries, political activism, identity politics, and culture wars. The rest of the population is mostly too busy living their lives and too disenfranchised from the system to worry about what concerns the economically well off.

It’s only the political class, not the majority of Americans, that are divided or like to pretend to be divided. But when it comes to issues of real political power and social privilege, most Republicans and Democrats of the political class are equally neocons and neoliberals. The political rhetoric that is used to create a mood of melodrama and divisiveness is rather superficial and misleading. Most Americans agree about most issues. Most Americans are for BOTH gun rights AND gun regulations, for BOTH abortion rights AND abortion limits, etc. Yet the divide and conquer strategy is quite effective, if only in terms of a sleight-of-hand diversion. It’s easy to rile people up momentarily or simply to demoralize them with the media-propagated sense of conflict.

There is a cynicism in how the political and media elite use these kinds of issues. They create an image of public opinion that doesn’t match the reality of public opinion. The ruse would be shown for what it is, if more of the population were to vote or revolt. It works so effectively because each individual realizes that the media-portrayed reality doesn’t match their own positions and experiences, which makes them feel disconnected from others and alienated from mainstream society, never realizing that people like them are the majority. It’s a highly developed form of social control, since it’s much easier for an elite to rule if the majority doesn’t realize they’re a majority.

The elite have a superior and often condescending attitude toward the rest of society. This expresses itself in many ways, from smug paternalism to righteous judgment, from fear of the dirty masses to opportunistic manipulation. You find it in how politicians of both parties act and in how the media talks. Listen to what Charles Murray says about poor whites in Fishtown, how Thomas Sowell talks about redneck culture, J.D. Vance’s admonishments of hillbillies, Bill Cosby’s criticisms of inner city blacks, etc. And that is just from the political right. The liberal class is known for this as well, specifically among the Clinton New Democrats and the mainstream media that is aligned with them. Smug liberalism was particularly bad this past campaign season and the arrogance of the liberal media was breathtaking.

Speaking of an elite can be misleading, though. The class divide can be remarkably slim at times. With economic troubles increasing and economic mobility decreasing, it’s getting easier and easier for the  upper class to slip down to the middle class and the middle class middle class to slip down to the working class while the working class itself falls further behind. But class identity maintains itself long after such changes occur, because as the entire class spectrum shifts downward almost everyone maintains their relative position within the hierarchy. It’s easy to forget how many Americans are on the bottom of society and how little it takes to gain a bit of class privilege.

The perceived or self-identified elite isn’t always extremely distant, either economically or geographically. Most Americans are working class without a college education. So, simply getting a college education leading to even the most minimal of professional jobs makes one a class above most of the population. It doesn’t matter that the public school teacher or county naturalist may make less money than someone with a good factory job. Class is ultimately an identity and having a college education can give someone a sense of superiority, no matter how slight it can sometimes be in economic terms.

What the college education can give an individual is potentially a position of authority, as even the most lowly of professional jobs can offer. A public school teacher can speak with authority to parents and the county naturalist can speak with authority to small farmers, and in both cases they have government backing their authority, even if that authority has little real force of power. It’s still a greater social position within the social hierarchy and that comes with certain privileges that are easily seen by those further down the ladder of respectability.

This is even seen in some traditionally working class jobs. Someone I know recently got a college degree and was hired on with the city department of parks and recreation. The previous head of the department liked to hire people who grew up on farms as they have practical knowledge about machinery, tools, etc. But the new head of the department prefers to hire college grads who have professional training as naturalists and so have expertise in forestry management, prairie restoration, controlled burns, etc. So, the newly hired employees are treated with more respect in the department and likely they’ll be promoted more quickly and paid more than the older workers. Working class experience and abilities are becoming increasingly irrelevant and of less economic value, hence of less social value. This person, simply by going to college, is now in a better position than most Americans. That certainly creates conflict in society and in the workplace.

It isn’t just that someone goes to college. It’s also what makes that possible. This person was raised upper middle class by college-educated parents. They made sure he took college preparation classes in high school, always encouraged him to go to college, and were willing and able to pay part for his college education. Plus, they modeled certain behaviors for him and helped him in school when asked. Most Americans never get these kinds of advantages that are the norm for middle-to-upper class families. At the most basic level, this is a very real class privilege, even when it is far from being part of the ruling elite.

I know many liberals who didn’t spend most of their lives in big cities in coastal states. They have all resided more years in rural farm states than anywhere else, but that has included living in liberal places like this Iowan college town. This creates a different mentality from someone in the same state who grew up on a farm or in an industrial town and who never went to college or lived in a college town. There are many college graduates in this liberal college town with working class jobs, but it is nothing like being working class in most places in the country working at some crap job like McDonald’s or Walmart.

I see how this different mentality effects people. Many of the people I know are good liberals. None of them are wealthy, often only a generation from working class, and yet they tend to have a strong sense of class identity, not unusually looking down on the poor. One liberal I know has made fun of coworkers for missing teeth. And another refuses to let his daughter play with the poor white children in the neighborhood. They dismiss poor whites as methheads and talk about tweakers for Trump. This also includes some fear and judgment of poor minorities, perceived as moving in from Chicago. It’s a strong sense of those other people being somehow inferior and unworthy, sometimes simply condescension but not unusually mockery. It’s not that they would openly be cruel toward the poor, but the attitude of superiority has to leak out even if unconsciously and I’m sure others pick up on it.

Some of that class consciousness was probably inherited from the larger society, learned from the behavior of older generations and absorbed from the media. That still wouldn’t explain how it came to be expressed so strongly in those who one might think, as liberals, shouldn’t be prone to class bigotry. Maybe it’s because many people I know, as with many of our generation, haven’t done as economically well as the previous generation. This creates class anxiety which is clear in many people having economic worries. The one thing they’ve got going for them is a college education. It’s what they have to prove their worth in the world and they hold the class attitude of seeing the lower classes as ignorant. Many of these people are of the liberal class of professionals, even if only barely.

This isn’t limited to liberals, of course. It’s just that I’ve become more aware of it among liberals. And it somehow seems worse when I observe it in liberals, as it contradicts how liberals see themselves. Many conservatives see no shame in class bigotry, as it is part of the conservative worldview of meritocracy and Social Darwinism. But in liberals, it feels particularly hypocritical.

For liberals, this also mixes up with identity politics. I’ve heard Democrats try to dismiss Bernie Sanders supporters and Donald Trump supporters by invoking what, to the liberal mind, are supposed to be protected groups. It was assumed that minorities, women, and LGBTQ people all supported Hillary Clinton. This was total bullshit, but it’s how a certain kind of liberal sees the world. In reality, Sanders won the majority of young and the poor, including among minorities and women and probably the LGBTQ as well. Then some of these people apparently went over to vote for Trump, as impossible as that seems to the liberal class.

This is an example of class disconnection. Economics doesn’t seem all that important when one has no serious and immediate economic problems. If you are of the liberal class, even on the lower end, most of the minorities and gay people you know are going to also be of the liberal class. This creates a distorted view of demographic identities. If you are a poor minority woman, Clinton’s middle class white feminism means little to you. If you are a working class gay man who lost his job when the factory closed, your most pressing concern at the moment isn’t same sex marriage. Worrying about such things as transgender bathrooms is a class privilege.

For most lower class people, gender and sexuality issues are far down the list of priorities. Even among working class straight white males, they don’t particularly care about culture war issues. Democrats have been pushing social liberalism for decades and yet the majority of the white working class kept voting for them. It was economics, stupid. The white working class isn’t going to vote against their own interests. It’s just that this election they didn’t see a corporatist candidate like Clinton as being in their best interest, whether that meant they chose to vote for another candidate or not vote at all.

The response of the liberal class is a clueless class bigotry. And if they’re not careful, Democrats will become the new party of class bigots, protecting the interests of the shrinking middle class against the interests of the growing working class. That would be a sad fate for the once proud working class party. The working class would be abandoned, left to fend for themselves with no party that represents them. Then the class divide will be complete, as economic inequality becomes a vast chasm. And the further the divide grows, the worse conflict will become. We might see some real class war, of the kind not seen for generations.

Is the smug satisfaction of class bigotry worth the harm it causes? As the economy worsens, perceived class position won’t save anyone nor will a sense of superiority be much comfort. Instead of Americans turning on one another, it would be to everyone’s advantage to see their interests more in line with the lower class majority than with the wealthy ruling elite. Even the rich would be better off in a society with less wasteful divisiveness and greater benefit for all.

On Rural America: Understanding Is The Problem

There is an article, On Rural America: Understanding Isn’t The Problem, that has been getting some attention. It’s written by someone calling himself Forsetti and co-written with his Justice. The tagline for the blog is, “this is Truth”. Well, I like truth. But that is where ends my agreement with the author.

The piece is too simplistic, narrow-minded, uninformed, and cynical. I sometimes think liberals like this are projecting a bit about their own limited groupthink. In the words of one comment I saw in a discussion, “So it’s a tumblr post saying religious people are dumb. OK.”

There is only one reason that this is worth responding to. The author does express a fairly typical view among liberals. I understand the attraction to righteous judgment and, in the past, I might have felt more sympathy toward the anger expressed. But I’m now growing impatient with this kind of attitude that is driving a wedge between Americans who should be seeking common cause.

The very basis of the argument is blatantly false. The world is more complex than is allowed for by an us vs them mentality.

As many have pointed out, there is nothing specifically Republican and conservative about rural areas and states. Many of these places were Democratic and strongly union in the past. Also, there used to be a strong movement of rural socialism, cooperatism, and communitarianism. Plus, mining states like West Virginia once were breeding grounds for radical left-wing politics like communism, Marxism, and syndicalism.

Quite a few states in flyover country, in particular the Upper Midwest, still are largely Democratic. In the 2008 primary, Hillary Clinton won many rural areas and rural states. And, after the nomination, many of those rural voters chose Obama and helped elect him to office. Obama didn’t just win all of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the West Coast. He also won the Midwestern states along with Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. He almost exactly repeated these results in 2012, minus Indiana and North Carolina. The difference for 2016 is that Clinton lost almost the entire Midwest, a region of flyover country that has been key for Democrats.

In recent elections, Democratic candidates win the presidency when they win the Midwest and lose the presidency when they lose the Midwest. The only Democratic candidate in the past half century who didn’t follow this pattern was Jimmy Carter, a Southerner who won with the support of Southern states.

I would point out that we really don’t know how most Americans would have voted this past presidential election because nearly half of Americans didn’t vote. If you live in a state that you think you’re candidate can’t win, you likely won’t vote at all. That is the problem with our winner take all system, where the winner takes every state in its entirety. This leads to Democrats losing presidential elections all the time, despite supposedly winning the popular vote, although to be fair it is impossible to determine the popular vote when not voting at all is so popular.

Population density and lack thereof is important. A person’s vote is worth more in a low density state than in a high density state, because if you’re surrounded by a vast concentrated population your vote has less ability to influence who becomes the victor. But the high density states aren’t entirely where you’d think they’d be.

Both Texas and California aren’t in the top ten of high density states. Rather, along with Florida, all the top ten most population dense states are found in New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest. In the top twenty, a quarter are found in the Midwest. Only Iowa and Minnesota are particularly low density for the Midwest.

Let me give some specific responses to the piece. Forsetti wrote that,

“The real problem isn’t east coast elites don’t understand or care about rural America. The real problem is rural America doesn’t understand the causes of their own situations and fears and they have shown no interest in finding out. They don’t want to know why they feel the way they do or why they are struggling because the don’t want to admit it is in large part because of choices they’ve made and horrible things they’ve allowed themselves to believe.”

Well, it’s a fact that East Coast elites don’t understand or care about rural America. Or rather, it’s a fact that research has shown the elites are disconnected from most of the population in general. The political elites are disconnected even from their own constituents. This is true for political elites from the coasts and from flyover country, because political elites tend to associate with other political elites along with elites in general.

That is only problematic if you support democracy. But if you don’t care about democracy, then everything is working just fine. Rural America doesn’t have much influence on politics. Even in rural states, most of the voters are concentrated in urban areas. It’s the cities more than anything that determine which candidate wins any given state, rural or otherwise.

“I have also watched the town I grew up in go from a robust economy with well-kept homes and infrastructure turn into a struggling economy with shuttered businesses, dilapidated homes, and a broken down infrastructure over the past thirty years. The problem isn’t that I don’t understand these people. The problem is they don’t understand themselves, the reasons for their anger/frustrations, and don’t seem to care to know why.”

First off, not all rural states are the same. Many farm and natural resources states with strong economies were largely untouched by the Great Recession. The housing market here in Iowa never took as much of a hit. Unemployment and poverty rates also have remained fairly low here. Maybe that is why Iowa has tended to vote Democratic in recent decades. Neighboring Minnesota has only voted for Republican presidential candidates in three of the last twenty-one elections, the only state to never have gone to Reagan. Iowa and Minnesota are as rural as they come and, as I pointed out, the most low density states in the Midwest (respectively ranked 36 and 31 in the country).

This author probably comes from the South. The rural South isn’t like rural anywhere else in the country. It is related to why working class whites everywhere outside of the South have tended to vote for Democratic presidential candidates. It is also related to the fact that, even in rural states, most working class whites live in urban areas. Also, keep in mind that many places considered rural today were considered urban in the past, until so much of the population left. My dad grew up in a thriving small town with multiple factories, but it was out in a rural area surrounded by farmland. Many small towns like that used to exist. The people left behind didn’t necessarily choose to be rural. It’s just the economy around them collapsed, with small businesses being closed, small factories disappearing, small farms being bought up by big ag, and small town downtowns slowly dying.

Many of those people understand just fine. They purposely didn’t vote for Clinton because she was the neoliberal candidate and they voted for Trump because he was the anti-neoliberal candidate. Trump promised to stop neoliberal trade agreements and to build infrastructure. They may have low education rates, but they aren’t utterly stupid. They are able to put two and two together.

“In deep red, white America, the white Christian God is king, figuratively and literally. Religious fundamentalism is what has shaped most of their belief systems.”

That is more of a Southern thing. In Iowa, for example, rural areas are largely Catholic along with Lutheran and Methodist. You don’t find many Baptists and other Evangelicals around here. Religion is more of a private issue in much of the Midwest. There is no mass longing for theocracy or the Second Coming.

Look at religiosity rates. Most of the Midwest is average, about evenly split between those who are highly religious and not. Some Midwestern states rate lower than average. Minnesota, with the 15th lowest rate, is lower than California (#17). And Wisconsin, with the 6th lowest rate, is lower than New York (#9).

Besides Utah, none of the most highly religious states are found outside of the broad South. And many of those religious Southern states are coastal and have big cities. The coastal elite in the South are as clueless as the coast elite elsewhere.

“I’ve had hundreds of discussions with rural white Americans and whenever I present them any information that contradicts their entrenched beliefs, no matter how sound, how unquestionable, how obvious, they WILL NOT even entertain the possibility it might be true. Their refusal is a result of the nature of their fundamentalist belief system and the fact I’m the enemy because I’m an educated liberal.”

I’ve found the exact same thing with well educated liberals. It seems to be common to humans in general. It’s why I’ve given up on the Democratic Party. Self-questioning and looking at contrary info doesn’t seem to be a talent of partisan Democrats. Nor is it a talent of the liberal class in general, as the world they live in is rather insular.

“Another problem with rural, Christian, white Americans is they are racists. I’m not talking about white hood wearing, cross burning, lynching racists (though some are.) I’m talking about people who deep down in their heart of hearts truly believe they are superior because they are white.”

Are we to assume the Clintons and other Democrats don’t think they are superior white people when they use racist dog whistle politics, promote racist tough-on-crime policies and mass incarceration, and kill large numbers of brown people in other countries? Is racism fine, no matter how many are harmed, as long as it is unstated and veiled?

“For us “coastal elites” who understand evolution, genetics, science…nothing we say to those in fly-over country is going to be listened to because not only are we fighting against an anti-education belief system, we are arguing against God.”

Once again, that depends on what part of the country you’re talking about. Many rural Americans, especially Midwesterners, have been supportive of education. In high school graduate rankings, Wyoming gets 1st place, rural Iowa ties for 3rd place with rural Alaska, Montana is #7, and Utah ties Hawaii for #8, North Dakota is #11, South Dakota is #12, Nebraska and Wisconsin tie for #13, and Kansas ties Washington for #17.

Consider Minnesota again. They are ranked 2nd in the country for high school graduates, #10 for bachelor degrees, and #17 for advanced degrees. That is quite the accomplishment for rural flyover country. Minnesota is the home of Garrison Keillor, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Methinks the author living on the coast doesn’t understand much about the rest of the country.

“Their economic situation is largely the result of voting for supply-side economic policies that have been the largest redistribution of wealth from the bottom/middle to the top in U.S. history.”

There is no evidence that, outside of the South, that rural states were more supportive of supply-side economics than the rest of the country. And even in the South, voting for Republicans probably has more to do with social and cultural issues than economic issues. Besides, this past election, it was the Clinton New Democrats who represented and defended the Reagan Revolution of neoliberal corporatism.

“They get a tremendous amount of help from the government they complain does nothing for them. From the roads and utility grids they use to the farm subsidies, crop insurance, commodities protections…they benefit greatly from government assistance. The Farm Bill is one of the largest financial expenditures by the U.S. government. Without government assistance, their lives would be considerably worse.”

In the Midwest, you hear less of such complaints. Farm states are more nuanced in their opinions about government, both local and national. It isn’t a coincidence that most major farm states are in the Midwest. The South doesn’t have as much farming as it used. The agricultural sector in states like Kentucky has largely disappeared. When I traveled through Kentucky, there were many collapsing old barns and fields slowly turning back into forest with some housing and old shacks mixed in between.

The reason I was visiting Kentucky was to see where my mother’s family used to live generations ago. Many Southerners left rural states like Kentucky to head up to the industrial Midwest, as did my family. Or else to move into one of the nearby metropolises such as Lexington. For those who remained in rural Kentucky, I doubt the Farm Bill is helping many of them.

“When jobs dry up for whatever reasons, they refuse to relocate but lecture the poor in places like Flint for staying in towns that are failing.”

Actually, most of them have relocated. The rural areas are depleted of population.

Many of those remaining there are the old, disabled, under-educated, low IQ, mentally ill, and generally struggling; plus, family members who stayed back to take care of aging parents and other independents, along with families that simply didn’t have the resources to move. Anyone who was in a position to leave has already left. And few young people and young families have any desire to move back to those kinds of places. It’s been a slow rural drain for more than a century now. We are just finally experiencing the death throes of rural America, quite literally as much of the rural population further ages and dies off.

It is heartless to judge these people. If they had the ability and opportunities to leave, they would have long ago. But even many who left for urban areas have simply faced problems of poverty and unemployment in their new location. If you were in their position, you’d also likely be in a state of bitter despair, frustration, and outrage. These people have literally been left behind, abandoned to die in obscurity. Besides, that is their home, maybe the home of their family for generations. Family and community is even more important when you’re poor.

What it is hard to understand is that it is immensely harder to be poor in a rural area than in an urban area. There are few public services available for rural residents. They might have to travel hours (an entire day trip back and forth) to get to the nearest government office, public health center, mental health services, food bank, etc. That is assuming they even have a reliable working vehicle to travel anywhere. There is no public transportation out in rural areas. They are lucky to have a convenience store and bar nearby. And if they are really fortunate, there might be a Walmart within an hour’s distance.

When most of the population left, most of the money, community centers, schools, churches, and social capital disappeared. There isn’t even much sense of basic safety. You want to know why they cling to their guns. It’s a desperate place to live, surrounded by some of the most impoverished and hopeless people in the country. The most thriving economy is probably illegal drugs, prostitution, and stolen goods. The violence and homicide rates are higher in rural areas than even the big cities. And if you feel threatened or have an emergency, it could be too late by the time the county sheriff arrives.

Yet many rural residents remember from their childhoods that these were great places to live with thriving communities and prosperous economies. They know full well what has been lost. And they are correct that coastal elites don’t care about them, even if they had the slightest understanding about their lives. They have every right to be angry. They’d have to either be crazy or saints to not be angry. Still, they probably don’t think much about it most of the time, as they’re too preoccupied with trying to get by.

“They complain about coastal liberals, but the taxes from California and New York are what covers their farm subsidies, helps maintain their highways, and keeps their hospitals in their sparsely populated areas open for business.”

That claim has little to do with reality. Most of the non-coastal states, even moreso in the Midwest (even Illinois with all of the “welfare queens”), give more in federal taxes than they receive in federal benefits. Also, many of the farm and natural resource states have large state GDPs that contribute immensely to the national GDP. Iowa gets ton of federal benefits but more than easily offsets that with federal taxes and general support to the economy.

The US economy was built on and has been largely maintained through farm and natural resource states. Even some of the natural resource states like Montana that receive more federal benefits than they pay in federal taxes only do so because the federal government funds projects there that benefit big biz. And so essentially it is a form of corporate subsidization that has little to do with the state itself as those are national and transnational corporations operating there. Sometimes the subsidies are more direct, such as the Koch brothers getting millions of state and federal dollars in Montana.

Ignoring the problem of corporate subsidies, the main economic divide of takers vs makers isn’t rural vs urban but South vs North. The South has a disproportionate part of the poor population in the country. And it is the single most populous region in the country.

“They make sure outsiders are not welcome, deny businesses permits to build, then complain about businesses, plants opening up in less rural areas.”

You can travel all over most of America and most often feel perfectly welcome. I’ve never felt unwelcome anywhere I’ve traveled, not even in the rural South. I’m surprised how many friendly people there are in the world when you act friendly to them.

About businesses, I have never seen such a pattern. The rural towns around here are more welcoming to businesses than this liberal city I live in. There is a crony capitalism and corporatism in this liberal town where local business owners tend to shut out anyone new from developing here. All major projects that are allowed by the City Council and given preferential treatment (e.g., TIFs) are those by local business owners. Otherwise, having a building permit denied isn’t unusual. And the liberals here aren’t shy about voicing their hatred of certain businesses, such as keeping a Walmart from being built in town.

I’ve never heard of any rural areas and small towns refusing to allow factories and businesses to be built. Most of them would be glad to see employment return. In the town my dad grew up in, the factories and stores didn’t disappear because local residents wanted them to disappear. The economy simply shifted elsewhere.

“Government has not done enough to help them in many cases but their local and state governments are almost completely Republican and so too are their Representatives and Senators. Instead of holding them accountable, they vote them in over and over and over again.”

Some rural state governments are Republican and some are Democratic. The pattern of party control seems to have more to do with regional culture, political traditions, and the kind of economy. Over time, though, there are changes in how rural state residents vote. Where the two parties tend to win has shifted vastly over the past century, including an entire political realignment. Just looking at the past 50 years doesn’t show a consistent pattern, except for in strong Blue states like Minnesota and the strong Red South.

“All the economic policies and ideas that could help rural America belong to the Democratic Party: raising the minimum wage, strengthening unions, infrastructure spending, reusable energy growth, slowing down the damage done by climate change, healthcare reform…all of these and more would really help a lot of rural Americans.”

The problem is many Democrats haven’t done those things. The Clinton New Democrats made the party into a wing of the neoliberal corporatist hegemony. Hillary Clinton was against raising the minimum wage before she said she was for it, but she no doubt was lying about changing her mind as she obviously doesn’t care about the working poor. The Democrats have done little for unions this past half century and betrayed them almost every chance they got.

Tell me again who campaigned on infrastructure spending… oh yeah, that was Donald Trump. Who has been one of the strongest supporters of dirty energy? That would be Hillary Clinton. And which president created a healthcare (insurance) ‘reform’ that was designed to primarily benefit healthcare insurance companies, even though the majority of Americans wanted either single payer or public option that the president refused to put on the table? Barack Obama, of course.

This self-identified ‘coastal elite’ is calling rural Americans stupid and self-destructive when it’s obvious he is as clueless, ignorant, and bigoted as they come. This kind of rant is the opposite of helpful. But it is a useful example of why the Democrats have lost so much support.

It’s the Working Class, Stupid

This election was mainly interesting for what it forced to the surface. Many people began paying attention. But the election itself wasn’t a fundamental change from trends and developments that have been happening for decades.

Politics after WWII was built on the growing middle class. And it was mostly a white middle class. The New Deal programs, the GI Bill, and such were designed to primarily help whites and to exclude minorities. Still, even many minorities were making economic gains at the time and increasingly joining the middle class. Not all boats were being floated, but more than ever before. And it was built with extremely high taxation on the rich. Creating a middle class doesn’t come cheap.

That subsidized and supported growing middle class made possible a new kind of politics. It took shape in the early Cold War, but only gained full force in the latter part of the 20th century. As much of the population became economically comfortable and complacent, they became ripe for the rhetoric of red-baiting, union-busting, culture wars, civil rights fights, and identity politics. Politicians had long stopped talking about the working class, about those aspiring to do better, and in its place came an emphasis on those who had already made it. The white middle class decided to pull up the ladder behind them and barricade the door.

Wages began to stagnate when I was born, back in 1976. Well, they stagnated for the average worker, which means they were dropping for the working poor. Buying power was decreasing, but people were able to maintain their lifestyles by working longer hours or multiple jobs. The economic problems were mostly felt across generations, as education costs increased and opportunities decreased, as job security disappeared and good benefits became rare. The unions made sure to protect older workers, which meant sacrificing younger workers. And the union leadership defended the political status quo in the hope of maintaining their increasingly precarious position. But the influence of unions was being felt by a decreasing number of Americans, especially among the working class and those falling out of the middle class.

Still, even going into the 21st century, there was still a large middle class. It was beginning to show signs of serious hurting, but the inertia of the economy kept the reversals from being noticed by the political and media elite. It was only at the bottom of society that it was obvious how bad it was getting, specifically among the young. That was true even in the 1980s and 1990s. GenXers were the only generation last century to experience a recession that only their generation experienced, and black GenXers were hurt the worst. That was true going back in the early life of GenXers with worsening child poverty rates. The vibrant middle class was poisoned in the cribs of GenX.

The talk of the middle class continued until this election. What had become clear this past decade or so, though, is that politicians and pundits in talking about the middle class were often actually talking about the working class. More people were falling out of the middle class, instead of entering it. In the past, simply aspiring to be middle class made you middle class, no matter if you were born working class and had a working class job. Middle class was primarily defined as an aspiration and the American Dream was about upward mobility. It was the sense that the whole country was moving up, all or most boats were being floated. But that has been changing for a long time.

This is the first election in my lifetime where the political and media elite finally had to admit that the US was defined by its working class, not its middle class. That is because in recent years this has become unavoidable. The US economic mobility had been falling behind other countries for a while, and fairly recently the US middle class lost its position as the most wealthy in the world. Trump won his nomination through inciting the fears and anxieties of a hurting middle class, as his earliest supporters weren’t the poor and working class, but he won the election because of those on the bottom of society, the working poor. Once Sanders was eliminated, Trump was the last candidate left standing who talked about economic populism and economic reform. As many have been reminding the Democratic establishment, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

It turns out that the mid-20th century middle class, along with the post-war economic boom that made it possible, was a historical anomaly. We are once again a working class country. And it isn’t a working class that is feeling all that hopeful at the moment. These Americans aren’t a temporarily down-on-their-luck middle class, much less temporarily embarrassed millionaires, nor are they even aspiring to much beyond not being left behind. Unless the entire economic and political system is reformed, this working class is here to stay. And if we continue on this path, it will become a permanent underclass.

Inequality Divides, Privilege Disconnects

Privilege is a tough subject. For most people, there are always plenty of others who are both more privileged and less privileged. Still, nuance and complexity isn’t how we tend to think about such things. It depends, as always, on what we focus upon and what we ignore—this typically being shaped by unconscious biases.

We don’t objectively compare ourselves to the larger social reality. And we don’t base our perceptions on intricate demographic data and comprehensive surveys. What we usually do is create a sense of our place in the world through personal anecdotes and vague media-filtered experience, through narrative frames and political rhetoric. This causes us to compare ourselves to the distorted and often fictionalized narratives portrayed in MSM news reporting and Hollywood movies—not to mention the influence of now near endless political campaigning and the subtle class war rhetoric that is drilled into our psyches. Besides that, it is human nature to focus on and, when possible, aspire toward what is above us. Even the wealthy will look with envy at the even wealthier. This is exaggerated in a high inequality society, where the gap between the rich and super-rich is as vast as the gap between the upper classes and all the rest, and such gaps continue to grow ever more vast. Only those near the bottom might bother to spend much time looking down upon those below them in the social pecking order, whether the differences are real (class) or perceived (race).

I’ve pointed out how this plays out for liberals—the privilege of the liberal class, the bias and benefits inherent to greater wealth and status, opportunities and resources. The liberal demographic is among the most economically well off and well educated. And, related to this, the wealthier of any demographic (race, ideology, etc) the more liberal people tend to be, often both in terms of social liberalism and classical liberal economics. It’s not only about those who self-identify as liberals. A similar pattern is found among libertarians and other right-wingers, from objectivists to anarcho-capitalists. It’s true of the Republican political elite and activists, the conservative pundits and think tank intellectuals, the business managerial class and inherited old wealth. But it’s also true of most people on the far political left: Marxists, anarcho-syndicalists, feminists, etc. Even the typical minority activist and politician is going to be far above average in wealth and education. To hold and defend any particular ideology or identity politics largely depends on a privileged status in society. It takes a lot of time, energy, and resources to commit to such activities—especially if one makes a career out of it. The poor, whether working or unemployed, whether white or minority, don’t have this kind of luxury.

There is an odd dynamic here. The middle-to-upper class are more ‘liberal’ in many ways, including for those on the political right. Those far down the economic scale are less concerned about defending liberalism in any of its forms, whether leftist standard liberalism or right-wing classical liberalism. In Western countries, even radical left-wingers who often are critical of ‘liberalism’ are more culturally liberal than the poor. On the other hand, the lower classes (i.e., the majority of the population) are more liberal/leftist in concrete ways than the political elite that claims to represent them—supporting: higher taxation of the rich and corporations, stronger social safety net, more effective regulations, less wars of aggression and military adventurism, etc. The supposed conservatism of the lower class majority is primarily symbolic, not necessarily based on specific political principles and policies. But it could be seen as genuinely conservative in the lower class’ demand for more emphasis on social capital and culture of trust, family and community—the very things that are undermined by upper class politics and economics, especially neoliberalism. Anyway, it’s a class divide more than an ideological divide, as the differences between partisan/ideological elites is negligible in terms of practical politics and actual results.

The main thing, anyway, is that there are these fundamental divides in our society. They lead to endless disconnections and conflicts. Our thoughts are distorted and our vision narrowed, causing endless confusion and misunderstanding. This is why privilege is so hard to see and understand. We rarely ever get the sense of the full context of our lives. This has worsened because of the segregation of not just ghettos, housing projects, and rural isolation but also of suburbs, walled communities, and gentrified neighborhoods. Physical distance leads to psychological distance.

Obviously, it’s not just about the hypocrisy of self-identified liberals living comfortable lives, even though their example is egregious based on the politics they outwardly support. This is a collective failure, not just of the dominant liberal order of post-Enlightenment society, or rather at this point we are all liberals complicit in this failure, even those who spend their lives complaining about liberalism and blaming liberals. Hypocritical liberals simply make explicit what is implicit to the world we live in. Even poor Westerners are part of the problems involved in a long history of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, slavery, exploitation, etc. Living in the West, we are all legacy beneficiaries of immense crimes against humanity in the past but also continuing into the present. This is particularly true of a country like the US, for being a subject of an empire has its advantages even for the poorest of subjects, not that it’s all that great of a fate even though there are worst fates.

As a liberal, much of my focus has been on other liberals. But I want to clarify this. There is a reason I identify as a liberal. It’s because of, not in spite of, my criticisms. According to my most utopian ideals and futuristic visions, I could identify as a left-libertarian, anarcho-syndicalist, democratic-socialist, etc. I could grab hold of some ideology as a way of distancing myself from liberalism. I don’t want to do that. Instead, I want to emphasize that I’m complicit in all that goes on in this society. I don’t want to merely stand back from it all or worse still pretend I’m above it all. That is what irritates me about many left-wingers. It’s true that left-wing politics has little overt power in the world today, certainly not in the United States. But I think it’s a cop-out for left-wingers to play intellectual games with detached righteousness, lost in their highfalutin abstruse historical and economic analyses, as if they aren’t stuck down in the sewers covered with shit like the rest of us.

Joe Bageant was a Marxist and considered himself far left of the far left, but he never forgot his roots in poor white Appalachia. He complained about liberalism and yet at times admitted he was a liberal of sorts—worse still, an educated liberal and an old hippie at that. He was trying to make his voice heard from within the belly of the beast, not observing the beast’s behavior as if a zoologist studying from afar. From the opposite end of the class spectrum, there was someone like Theodore Roosevelt. His class solidarity apparently was a bit lacking, as he didn’t espouse an ideology for the wealthy and business interests. He took socialists seriously, in that he argued they made some valid points. Unlike many mainstream partisans today reacting to the supporters of Sanders and Trump, TR didn’t just dismiss the perceived radicals as loud-mouthed rabble-rousers and malcontents. He argued that many socialists were simply social reformers, not utopian ideologues, and that the issues they brought up should be taken seriously—it being better to allow genuine reform if it prevents violent revolution. Both Bageant and Roosevelt were making the simple point that we should listen to those making complaints and try to understand where they are coming from—i.e., don’t shoot the messenger.

Here is what has been on my mind, a specific demographic that is some combination of middle-to-upper class, well educated, professional, and mostly white. Out of this demographic comes the politicians and activists, community organizers and social workers, intellectuals and academics, writers and artists, musicians and actors, journalists and reporters, etc. Despite being a minority of the population, they have greater power to be heard and influence than all of the rest of the population combined. They are, of course, more economically secure and comfortable than most of the population, along with greater opportunity for economic mobility. They particularly dominate the political and media spheres and so they determine the terms of public debate and controlling the framing of issues and narratives. These are the people who are most invested in the system and likewise benefit the most from the system, but they aren’t the people who experience the greatest harm from and costs of the system.

These are the privileged. These are the people who have the most insulated lives. They either don’t see or don’t understand many of the divides in our society. Certainly, they have little experience of those who live on the other side of those divides. They argue among themselves within a narrow frame of interests and ideas. Even the supposed radicals among them are safely contained within the dominant paradigm. Yet fissures are beginning to form in their walled reality. And the voices from outside are beginning to be heard. This disturbs their comfortable lives and puts them in an irritable mood. They realize their position in the social order is being threatened.

Even so, I don’t get the sense that most of these middle-to-upper class gentlefolk realize how bad it’s gotten for the majority of the population. Some do get it, but many more don’t. When I hear the criticisms of the supporters of Sanders and Trump, it becomes obvious that these critics are oblivious to the point of utter cluelessness. It’s not just economic problems getting worse: increasing poverty among the disadvantaged and growing inequality across society, higher rates of unemployment and underemployment (permanent unemployment no longer even being measured), the falling behind other developed countries in economic mobility along with the size and wealth of the middle class, stagnating or falling real wages and buying power, etc. It’s also a worsening of rates of mental health issues, suicide and other mortality causes, delayed marriage and divorce—and the destruction of all that held the social fabric together: deteriorating tight-knit farming communities and factory towns based on strong local economies, loss of high membership rates in labor unions and civic organizations, undermining of culture of trust and civic participation, weakening of democratic process and representation, disempowerment and disenfranchisement and demoralization of the lower classes, economic segregation and isolation, underfunding of schools and libraries and infrastructure and public services, and so much else.

This isn’t directly impacting most of the people the comfortable middle-to-upper classes. They usually don’t even see it’s impact on others, except occasional reports about it in the news media and occasional portrayals of it in the entertainment media. But even then, no real sense of what it means for those suffering and struggling. When they dismiss demands for reform from those below them, what they don’t understand is that these aren’t unreasonable requests. Those at the bottom of society don’t have the luxury to wait for slowly implemented moderate reforms. The system is broken. For the worst off, this at times can be a life or death situation. Some people are barely hanging on, at the end of their rope. As the economy worsens and the divides widen, desperation gets pushed to the breaking point with the inevitable result of soaring rates of mental health issues and suicides. Push it far enough and you will see even far worse consequences for all of society. The presently comfortable might find themselves increasingly uncomfortable, if they continue to ignore the victims of these oppressive problems. It’s not wise, much less moral and compassionate, to dismiss the pleas of the desperate.

* * *

The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness

The Desperate Acting Desperately

Trends in Depression and Suicide Rates

From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations

Republicans: Party of Despair

Rate And Duration of Despair

A Truly Free People

“We may awake in fetters, more grievous, than the yoke we have shaken off.”
~Abraham Clark, signer of the Declaration of Independence and member of the Annapolis Conference

How many Americans understand or even suspect the radicalism that once inspired a people to revolt against one of the most powerful empires in the world? How many grasp how daring and vast was this experiment? How many know the names of these heroes? Besides maybe Thomas Paine, how many know about Ethan Allen and Thomas Young? I must admit that Abraham Clark is new to me.

I’ve often written about Paine. His example is inspiring and his life quite amazing. He practically came out of nowhere, setting the colonial world ablaze with his words. And he walked the talk, putting his life on the line again and again. But anyone can fight. What matters is what is fought for. Paine took revolution seriously, believing it to be more than a shifting of power from one ruling elite to another. He was not alone in this thought. Nor was he alone in understanding it was a class war. Clark, for example, shared that sentiment. They understood those who possessed the land and wealth would control the government, as that was always the principle of every despotic government, the very basis of monarchy and aristocracy.

Those like Paine, however, understood that there was a difference in the past. There had been countervailing forces that protected the commoners. For all the faults of feudalism, it enforced a social order of rights and obligations, not just the peasants to their lords but also vice versa. To be a peasant meant to belong to the land, quite literally, and no one could take it away from you, that is until that social order came undone. It wasn’t revolutionaries that destroyed the ancien regime. It was those in power, the supposed defenders of the ancien regime.

What the ruling elite possessed, in many cases, had been stolen. In dismantling feudalism, eliminating the Commons and the rights of the commoners, in creating a new class of landless peasants concentrated in the cities, they made revolution all but inevitable. This radical, anti-traditional capitalism oddly became the defining character of modern ‘conservatism’.

Joseph De Maistre, a French counter-revolutionary, noted that people only identify as conservatives after so much has already been lost. Conservatism isn’t so much conserving still existing and fully thriving traditions, but lamenting and romanticizing what once was or is imagined as having been. Conservatism is just the other side of radicalism. But, according to Corey Robin, conservatives understand full well that the ultimate blame for the destruction of the old order is the old order itself. Feudalism, as such, committed suicide. Conservatives don’t care about the old order itself or any of its traditions. Their only concern is to rebuild a rigid hierarchy, but almost any new system can be made to work for this purpose, even something as radical as capitalism that was the very cause of the destruction of the old order.

I’ve pointed out many times before that there was a strange phenomenon in post-revolutionary America. How quickly conservatives took up the rhetoric of the political left. How quickly the aristocrats and plutocrats co-opted the revolution. There were increasing restrictions in certain areas, specifically those without power began to have their rights constrained. This wasn’t just seen with poor whites or white women. “In some places, propertied women, free blacks, and Native Americans could vote, but those exceptions were just that. (Ed Crews)” True, they were exceptions, and yet for during the era leading up to the American Revolution these exceptions were becoming ever more common—to such an extent that a movement was forming, the very movement that helped give such moral force to the revolutionary zeal.

The revolution gave form to that radicalism, even as it strengthened the reactionary forces against it. In the following decades, so much was lost. “After the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, only a few percentage of Americans had the right to vote (the plutocratic elite of free white male landowners which added up to, as some calculate, around 6-8% of the total population who were eligible voters).” In several states, women had gained the right to vote and then in the early years of the new country they lost the vote again. But, of course, among the biggest losers were blacks, including free blacks, as they suddenly were perceived as a greater threat than ever before. What rights and freedoms they had slowly gained were eroded way as America moved closer to civil war. Black churches were shut down for fear of slave revolts and the few free blacks that had the vote lost it—as a newspaper described in 1838:

Since Jackson’s presidency, there’s been a push to give all white men the vote, even if they don’t own property.

Right now, free black men have the vote in several states. But as states revamp their constitutions to loosen voter requirements for white men, blacks are being stripped of rights they had.

Pennsylvania’s constitution of 1790 gave the vote to “every freeman of the age of twenty-one years.”

Today that was changed to say “every white freeman.”

It’s not just the radicalism that I wanted to bring attention to. What occurred to me is how this relates to the issue of the ancient world. Many revolutionaries looked back to ancient Rome and Greece. The idea of The People originated with the Greek démos.

It is hard for many of us today to take seriously this view of society and politics. We automatically see it as a fiction or an abstraction. But this is because organic communities are almost entirely dead in the modern West. The visceral sense of belonging to a people and a place, to one’s kin and neighbors, a coherent sense of community—this is foreign to us. We’ve become fully alienated, in terms of both the Marxian species-being and Cartesian anxiety.

I’ve had on my mind that human nature itself might in a sense be radical. It’s only in taking the ancient world seriously that we can begin to grasp who we are and what we might become. If we aren’t mere individuals, if we aren’t just billiard balls crashing into one another, then what are we? In our attempts to understand ourselves, what kind of world do we create? And in creating this world, how does this further shape that understanding?

To rethink human nature is a radical act because the very potential of radicalism exists within human nature. The new individualistic self took root in the Axial Age. And the psychological self took shape in the Renaissance. But it was the printing press that brought these ideas of the self down into the mess domain of public politics. Pandora’s Box was opened.

These were no longer just ideas to be pondered by the intelligentsia. Their radical potential became manifest. Yet enough of the older senses of self clung to the roots. The feudalism that had its origins in the ancient world was able to hold on into the revolutionary era, the old order still being fresh enough in public memory to be a source of inspiration for the 19th century Romantics.

The notion of The People was being reshaped by new ideas. But the very sense of being a people was nothing new. It was at the very heart of a still living tradition. It was that meeting of the old and new that led to such unpredictable results.

Christian G. Fritz, in American Sovereigns, writes (pp. 3-4):

It seems puzzling today that Americans once considered their sovereign to be the people acting collectively. Modern scholars suggest that sovereignty of the people a rhetorical flourish lacking practical application as a constitutional principle. As a crucial “fiction,” the people’s sovereignty had enormous political influence. But modern accounts of America’s constitutional history neglect the constitutional authority once imputed to such a collective sovereign and as such they fail to appreciate the earlier existence of a widely held belief in collective sovereignty that lost sway only after the Civil War.

The lost view of sovereignty assumed that a majority of the people created and therefore could revise constitutions at will, and that a given majority of one generation could not limit a later generation. America’s first constitutions, being an expression of people’s sovereignty, could not be turned against the majority of the people. Indeed, those constitutions frequently contained express provisions recognizing the broad scope of the people’s authority. Such statements encouraged an expansive view of the constitutional revision. The essence of the rule of law—that binding law exists above both the governors and the governed alike—was challenged by the idea that a sovereign people could not be bound even by a fundamental law of their own making.

Under the expansive view, adhering to procedures specifying constitutional change provided one means of determining the will of the sovereign. Nonetheless, constitutional text requiring special majorities could not prevail over the clear will of a majority to dispense with such requirements if that majority so desired. The key to legitimacy was whether constitutional change expressed the will of the collective sovereign, not adherence to specific procedures. While Americans frequently followed such procedures, for many those steps were simply useful, not indispensable. They were not the only legitimate tools available for a sovereign to articulate its will.

It is time we reclaim our own history.

We are still on that cusp of transformation. Much of the world has to varying degrees maintained organic communities. Many populations still have that communal sense of identity, as a present reality or in the not too distant past. The rural lifestyle and tight-knit small communities is within living memory for a significant number of Americans. Even the ancient traditions of subsistence farming and barter economy continued into early 20th century America. The majority of Americans left the rural areas less than a century ago.

I wouldn’t be so dismissive of that ancient view of being a people, a communal self, not the same thing as collectivist ideology. It’s lasted for millennia. And it was never limited to the Greeks, even though their surviving texts made it famous. For many people today, this is a very much real experience of social reality.

Maybe we should take more seriously what once motivated revolutionaries, the attempt to carry that ancient tradition into a changing world, an anchor in turbulent seas. And as we become increasingly disconnected from the past and alienated from our own human nature, this way of seeing the world becomes ever more radical. The term ‘radical’ etymologically comes from late Latin, meaning of or pertaining to the root. And, I might add, a revolution originally meant a return. We could use a radical revolution right about now, a return to our roots. That is an original intent that might mean something. We can only move forward by seeing the path we’ve been on.

Otherwise, we will be doomed to repeat history. A bad situation being replaced by worse still. That was the warning given by Abraham Clark and many others as well. Within that warning is a seed of hope, that maybe one day a generation will take up the task of becoming a truly free people.

Young Poor Darker-Skinned Minority Men

The recent incidents of cops killing poor black men puts the issues into context.

Some have pointed out that poor whites and black women also get killed by cops. But the point is that they don’t get killed as often as poor black men. Also, rich black men don’t get killed either very often. Bill Cosby doesn’t have to worry about being shot.

It isn’t just getting disproportionately shot that is the problem. The entire criminal system directs itself most strongly against poor black men. Actually, it is young poor black men. To be yet even more precise, it is young poor darker-skinned minority men, as research shows that darker skin leads to greater racial bias.

Simply being a lighter-skinned young poor black man will likely save you some grief with the police. Or being a woman will make a major difference in how likely you are to be arrested and convicted for the exact same crimes committed by a man. Or just aging a bit transforms a dangerous threat to society into a wise old black man.

It isn’t just a race issue. It isn’t just a conflict between whites and blacks. It involves a centuries-old class war and much else besides.

It’s this combination of factors that is so strange to my mind. All of it gets mixed up. Why is the young poor black man the ultimate in bigoted scapegoating and police targeting? What does this stereotype represent in our collective psyche?