Hitting Society With A Sledgehammer

Minutes before the interview began we received news of a school shooting in CT (the Sandy Hook tragedy). Details were unclear at the time, but there was an indication that many young children had been killed. We thus opened the interview with a question about the school massacre.

Q: We are going to start with something we did not plan, we just got word about a tragedy in Connecticut. The Superintendent of Schools for the State of Connecticut just robo-called me to tell me, as a parent, that there has been a shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. 18 to 22 children killed. There were apparently two shooters, two teenagers, and one of the shooters is dead. The school has 600 students.

NC: Is there any motive, or anything?

Q: This is the latest. We don’t have much information.

NC: So there is nothing understood about the background?

Q: No. Nothing. So, does this say something about the society we live in?

NC: If it was just one incident you could think maybe [it was] some psychotic individual or something. But it’s been happening with unpleasant regularity, and it’s got to be a sign of social breakdown of some kind, which is not too surprising. I mean, the whole society has been under severe strain for about 30 years. [It’s] not at the level of Haiti or Central Africa or something but people don’t measure themselves against totally different circumstances—like nobody feels they’re rich because they’re richer than they were in the Stone Age. People judge their circumstances by what it ought to be, given what’s available in the society, given the wealth in the society, and given similar societies that they may know something about. After all, we’ve gone through a period of roughly a generation—late 70s, accelerating sharply in the 80s—of the US phase of the worldwide neoliberal assault against the populations of the world. It’s been taking different forms in different places.

This morning I happened to have a conversation with somebody in Slovenia. They were part of the old Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia collapsed in the 80s, partly under the impact of the [neoliberal] structural adjustment programs that were imposed by the international financial institutions.

Take a look at the Rwanda massacres. The conflicts go far back—I was writing about them in the 70s, happened to be in Burundi then but it was the same conflict, a lot of massacres—but in the 80s Rwanda was subjected to very destructive structural adjustment programs. It raised conflict, ethnic tensions, a society becomes dissolved, and relationships between people erode. We know what happened later. Actually it was discussed by anthropologists at the time working there, so it doesn’t surprise us.

Sometimes it can be more rapid like say Syria. If you go back two or three years it wasn’t that everyone loved each other but you didn’t have murderous Aloite-Sunni conflicts, and others rising too.

After the US invaded Iraq, for about two years Iraqis were confident that there would never be significant Sunni-Shiite conflicts because people lived together, there was a lot of intermarriage, just a lot of interaction between the two groups. But once you hit a society with a sledgehammer lots of things can happen.

And the US has been banged with a sledgehammer for about 30 years. The general facts people are familiar with: stagnation or decline for a considerable majority; plenty of growth—not growth at the level of the 50s and the 60s, the big growth period, but there’s growth—and wealth created and it’s going into very few hands. In fact for a tenth of a percent of the population it’s gone through the roof. It’s gotten much worse in the last ten years. There’s actual decline [for the population], which is quite unusual, even since the recession.

The outcome of the recession is that the perpetrators are richer and more powerful than ever. The big banks and so on are bigger, stronger, still protected by the government insurance policy so that they can get favorable credit ratings and interest rates because the credit agencies just take for granted that next time they crash the economy they’ll be bailed out, so therefore they’re secure. And even if people don’t know the details they can still sort of see it. Meanwhile for the general population: nothing.

Take a look at say the TARP legislation. TARP incidentally was a small part of the bailout. That’s what people focus on but [the bailout] was much broader than that. The Congressional legislation for the bailout had two components to it. One component was, “OK, we’ll bail out the perpetrators and get them functioning again.” You can argue about whether you should have done it or not but anyway, some justification for it. The other part was, “Do something for the victims!” That part was almost entirely abandoned, virtually nothing. Even if people don’t know those facts they see it in their lives. You can see that your lives are getting nowhere. There are a lot of these things, and much more like it.

People [come to believe] that the government is just an enemy. That ranges from the Tea Party types to ordinary people. Nobody expects the government to do anything for them. It’s an enemy.

You see it pretty dramatically with the attitude toward taxes. It’s taken for granted in the United States everyone wants their taxes reduced. Why? If you lived in a functioning democratic society you wouldn’t want that. In a functioning democratic society April 15th—or the equivalent of April 15th—would be a day of celebration. You’re getting together to fund the actions that you decided on. What’s better than that, you know? Here it’s a day of mourning. There’s an alien force coming to steal from you.

There are good studies in the political science literature [about this]—they study this pretty well—and it’s a well-established conclusion that a majority of the population, roughly maybe 70%—the lower 70% on the income scale—have absolutely no influence on policy. As you move up the income scale you get more influence. When you get to the very top they essentially get what they want. People may not read the political science literature but you’ve got to be pretty blind not to see it.

I think that shows up. I don’t think this has been studied, though it could be, but if you look at non-voters in the United States—almost half don’t vote and in Presidential elections way more [vote] than in Congressional elections—why don’t they vote? Part of the reason may just be it’s become difficult to vote, there are barriers put up and so on. Alright, that’s probably part of it. But I suspect a large part of it is just the understanding, “They don’t listen to us anyway.” “I have no influence on what goes on. Why should I bother voting?”  That’s another form of indication of collapse of the society.

In fact it’s kind of interesting to look at the non-voters. Overwhelmingly they’re Democratic when they’re asked what they are, which means if they had voted it’d be a Democratic landslide. But they don’t bother, because what they want nobody pays any attention to anyhow, which happens to be correct.

One of the interesting results of the election was that there’s an almost linear relationship between income and party vote so as you go down the income level the vote for Democrats becomes higher. Below the median the Democrats would’ve won by a landslide. Above the median the Republicans would’ve won by a landslide. It’s not 100%—there’s all kind of other factors entering into it—but that correlation is pretty striking. And if you had added in those who didn’t vote, it’s even more dramatic. It’s not that the Democrats do anything for anyone beyond a token, but they do something. If you look over the years, people have made out somewhat better under Democratic administrations than Republican ones, not huge but somewhat, and it’s enough to recognize something.

A lot of rights are just being undermined and destroyed. The forms of social solidarity that allow people to combat this in a constructive way, those are being destroyed.

A very important fact is what’s happening to the union movement. The labor unions used to be the main cohesive force that carried people forward towards policies that are more beneficial to the general public. Again not 100%, but the tendency’s pretty strong and that’s of course the main reason why they’re so hated by the business world. They’ve been under sharp attack since the peak of their achievements. As soon as the Second World War was over the attack began, reinitiated I should say because this has happened over and over again in American history, and by now it’s very strong and the propaganda is working like a dream.

Take what happened in Michigan the other day, the so-called “right to work” law. The “right to work” conception is straight out of Orwell. The bills have absolutely nothing to do with right to work. If an individual person wants to make a personal contract with General Motors they can do it. Like you can make a contract with General Motors and say, “I’ll be your slave.” OK, they’ll make the contract with you. But if you want to work for General Motors and get the benefits of a union contract—and there are benefits—that’s why most workers want to join unions—there are real benefits: wages, working conditions, safety, pensions, all kinds of stuff—if you want to get those benefits and not pay for it, that’s what the so-called “right to work” laws are for. It’s really “right to scrounge” laws, but the propaganda is so strong that I haven’t seen a word in the press about this. It’s all “right to work.” And that sounds nice—that’s why I say it is right out of Orwell. You know, why shouldn’t people have a right to work? Should they have a right to scrounge? No, they shouldn’t have a right to scrounge. But that’s what these laws are about. And it’s been effective. There’s no doubt that it’s been effective. I mean, the union leadership has contributed to it as well in many ways. But nevertheless, it’s very effective propaganda and it’s led to blow after blow against working people and solidarity.

It’s happened before. Go back a little over a century. There were huge popular movements in the United States. It was late 19th century. It was mostly an agricultural country still. The Farmers’ Alliance, you know, the radical farmers groups were a huge movement, very radical incidentally, and none of this nonsense about “We’re out for ourselves.” They weren’t. They were working together. They wanted to have their own banks, their own marketing systems, all kinds of things, and they wanted to link up with the Knights of Labor—a huge working-class organization that was also quite radical if you look at their programs. I mean, these are the biggest popular democratic movements in modern history, certainly in American history, and they were really strong. They were finally broken up, in part by violence; it’s a very violent country. It’s related to what you just saw; there is a long history of violence in the country, and a very violent labor history in particular. [They were broken up] in part by violence but in part by something that’s being used very effectively now: racial strategies…trying to turn people against each other on the basis of race or ethnicity, and so on. That is the kind of thing that can be done. Reagan was the master of it.

Reagan was an extreme racist. He simply launched a war against African Americans. It is called the “drug war.”  It is a war against African Americans. That is the way the “drug war” is formulated and shaped, and the execution of it from police discretion on through sentencing, and everything else. He combined it with an attack on poor people, which means mostly black people because of the race/class correlation. His favorite anecdote was this fantasy about the “welfare queens,” a rich black woman gets driven in her limousine to one of the dozen welfare offices she goes to, to pick up your hard earned money. OK, so everybody is against welfare, of course. I mean, who is in favor of that?  I’m not in favor of that either. So, with a straight resort to racism, which is never very far below the surface in the United States, they were able, particular through Reagan, but then beyond, Clinton expanded it, and so on, they were able to break that kind of solidarity.

The same thing happened to the populist movement, it is a lot of what Jim Crow was about. You can exploit these things and it does break down bonds of solidarity, mutual aid and so on. The end result is you get a society that is just dissolving. People don’t talk to each other, they don’t have associations, they don’t participate together in things, they don’t work together for common goals, etc. OK, so you get things where people go crazy, particularly in a society where violence is just beneath the surface and constantly used against poor and weak people. So, you get things like the Columbine story, or, I don’t know what this is going to turn out to be, but it is one of several. There has been a long series of them.