In the Dead Zone of Capitalism: Lessons on the Violence of Inequality from Chicago

"I consider the survival of [fascism] within democracy to be potentially more menacing that the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy."

                     Theodor W. Adorno 


Americans are confronted daily with the violence of inequality. The rich have longer life spans, better health care, access to better educational opportunities and an abundance of food. [1] Many live in palatial homes in gated communities and wield a disproportionate amount of control and power over the major social, cultural, and political apparatuses that shape everyday life.[2] Unlike most Americans, the extravagantly rich are protected from the massive degree of violence produced by poverty, poor health, joblessness, inadequate social provisions, decrepit housing, unsafe neighborhoods, and even environmental disasters. While the superrich also live in an age of precarity due to the free-market economic models they support, they largely escape its consequences through the obscene amount of wealth at their disposal that enables them to buy private solutions to public problems.[3] As Naomi Klein points out, such wealth offers more than economic advantages. It also creates a world in which the penthouse and mansion set


The corrupt bankers, hedge fund managers, and financial services elite who caused the housing crisis and the economic recession of 2008 have little fear of finding themselves homeless or in debt, a fate suffered by millions of Americans, especially young people. The hedge fund managers who pour millions into charter schools as a first step towards privatizing them don’t worry about draining valuable resources from public schools because their kids only attend the most elite and expensive private schools, and they also get a hefty return from such investments as a generous tax credit. [5] Transferring wealth from the public to the private sector has become a sport rather than a liability – a despicable act of looting the public treasury that is viewed strictly as a financial transaction divorced from any sense of civic duty or ethical consideration. The ultra-rich do not have to worry about being unemployed, even though their search for profits produces austerity policies that put millions out of work. [6] In this instance what emerges is a savage form of casino capitalism along with an army of walking dead zombies who celebrate a narcissistic hyper-individualism that radiates a near sociopathic lack of interest in other people and civic life. For the new financial elite of the second Gilded Age, the challenges of a global world are private, not collective, and can only be addressed by pursuing one’s own desires, financial interests, and security.

The obligations of citizenship and social existence in this brave new world of egregious inequality in which the "top 8% of global earners are drawing 50% of this planet’s income" [7] have been abandoned to the narrow dictates of the private realm, consumerism and an arrested notion of individualism and freedom. In the United States, "the 400 richest people . . . have as much wealth as 154 million Americans combined, that’s 50 percent of the entire country [while] the top economic 1 percent of the US population now has a record 40 percent of all wealth, and have more wealth than 90 percent of the population combined." [8] It gets worse. Half of the jobs in America "now pay $34,000 or less a year . . . 42% of single-mother families with children under 18 are poor [and] 20.5 million people have incomes that amount to less than $9,500 a year. That’s half the poverty line, which is currently pegged at $19,090 for a family of three." [9] Moreover, the myth of upward mobility has been replaced by the reality of downward mobility, given that wages for most Americans are stagnant; youth now face a future of low-wage jobs, if not long-term unemployment, and economic and educational opportunities are tied almost exclusively to income and wealth. What the cheerleaders for neoliberalism refuse to acknowledge is that the choices people make are tied to constraints, and "nearly all of the constraints are intimately tied to the material circumstances in which we find ourselves." [10]

As public visions fall into disrepair, the concept of the public good is eradicated in favor of the narrow, private orbits of self-interest and individual happiness, characterized by an endless search for instant gratification, consumer goods and quick profits. The value of everything from education to health care is measured by how profitable it might be for those who treat such institutions less as a public good than as a source for private gain. There are no ethical dilemmas here, only opportunities for increasing the bottom line and making greed the highest of human values and desires. Such behavior is legitimated by appeals to a competitive philosophy in which everyone is either an enemy to be punished or a resource to be exploited, used, and eventually discarded in the quest for personal and financial success. Citizens have been replaced by consumers, and the search for profits regardless of the social costs has created a society in which the accumulation of capital trumps any concerns about fairness and justice. Snapshots of growing inequality are symptomatic of a society that has divorced itself from any sense of moral and social responsibility. Surely, the recent deaths of hundreds of workers in unsafe factories in Bangladesh speak to how disposable human beings have become under a market-driven system in which the desire for cheap labor by companies such as Wal-Mart, Sears, Disney, and others takes precedence over the health, dignity, and lives of poor workers.

The growing levels of injustice in every facet of life barely provoke outrage because they are wrapped in a disimagination machine that ascribes inequality to the natural order of things, an act of nature in which hard work and merit prevail in great riches and comforts for the few and impoverishment for the many. Yet, even this timeworn myth is rarely evoked anymore. The current crop of super-rich financiers is much too arrogant and comfortable to provide a rationale for their extreme wealth and power. All forms of violence are now factored, if not ignored, into the call for economic growth, abetted by the cowardice of the mainstream media that act as paid servants for the rich and the growing prominence of a political apparatus that enriches itself on the benefits provided by an army of corporate lobbyists. [11]

The spectacle of the new Gilded Age reveals itself in the huge incomes and unimaginable amounts of wealth being amassed by the upper 1 percent. For instance, hedge fund manager Steven Cohen of SAC Capital Advisors took home $1.4 billion in 2012, while Ray Balio, Bridgewater Associates founder, made $1.7 billion and David Tepper of Appaloosa Management made $2.2 billion the same year. [12] Paul Buchheit reports that the Koch brothers make about $3 billion per hour on their investments, while the poorest 47 percent of Americans have no wealth. [13] While many young people face a jobless future, billionaires such as Bill Gates, Leon Cooperman, and others do more than drain wealth and income from the larger society; they also destroy those institutions that serve the common good, undermine the public interest, and gut the most basic elements of a viable social contract. Buchheit has argued that "a single top income could buy housing for every homeless person in the United States." [14] Not only do the rich and powerful shape policies that lower corporate tax rates while bleeding states of much needed revenue, but they also attempt to compensate for the loss of public revenue by closing public schools in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago and New York City. Austerity has become a ruthless ploy to "cut spending to the point where government [becomes] unrecognizable." [15]

The neoliberal policies funded by the new financial elite cut funding for programs such as Head Start, eliminate breakfast programs for poor children and portray people on food stamps as freeloaders. The latter baseless insult is particularly vicious since the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is crucial for low-income children living in extreme poverty because it "greatly reduce[s] food insecurity . . . which, in turn, greatly enhances their chances of doing well in school and growing up to be successful, productive adults."[16] The Republican Party’s engineering of the so-called sequester is not about balancing the budget. It is about waging war on poor minorities and low-income youth, public schools, the welfare state, unions and social programs for women and other disadvantaged populations. Such inequality of power and wealth produces massive amounts of human suffering for millions of Americans who are marginalized by age, race, gender, disability and socio-economic class. 

In Texas, 1.5 million low-income people will lose health care because of the ethos of savage capitalism relentlessly enforced by Governor Rick Perry and his fellow lawmakers. These bible-thumping disciples of "free-market" capitalism have "voted against expanding Medicaid using $100 billion in federal funds offered under President Obama’s health care law," insisting that government-sponsored health care demeans character and rewards people labeled by conservatives as lazy and contemptible.[17] Of course, the populations considered disposable here are low income and poor minorities, of whom 35 and 32 percent, respectively, suffer from poor health and shortened life spans. As Goran Therborn points out, inequality is not simply about the gap between the rich and the poor: It is about the inequities in life expectancy between the privileged and disadvantaged.[18] The dividing line in American society is no longer between those who have made it and those trying to emulate their success. On the contrary, the dividing line is between those who live a life of unimaginable privilege and comfort and those who are struggling to survive and stay alive.

There is more at stake here than a symbolic violence that objectifies the vulnerable and produces insensitivity to their problems. There is the real violence that aggravates poor health, shortens lives and produces a machinery of individual and social death. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he pointed to two Americas, stating insightfully that "the other America" is inhabited by people "perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity." [19] What he did not envision was that those considered part of the other America are now viewed not as disadvantaged, but as utterly disposable. In the new order of casino capitalism, people continue to live in rat-infested slums, but they are also increasingly warehoused in jails and prisons, which now rank as the most prominent institutions of the welfare state. And if they do not perish in prisons, they die from illness caused by the failure of government to regulate big business.

As Ralph Nader recently noted,