Years ago I worked as a Research Director (I even had to wear a suit) for a fading corporate- and City Hall-captive urban non-profit social services and civil rights agency. The organization’s wealthy and long-term CEO was notorious for drunkenness and other forms of dissipation (including frequent agency-funded trips to elite social gatherings like the Kentucky Derby and the Masters Golf Tournament) related to its decline.
One day in my office I asked a colleague at the organization why our chief executive behaved in the selfish and irresponsible ways he did. My colleague responded with a question: “Dr. Street, why does a dog lick its balls?”
I confessed I didn’t know. The answer: “Because it can.”
My colleague’s point was that nobody with any power was telling our CEO he couldn’t get away with it. He was being rewarded again and again, from year to year, with an outrageously high salary, an agency limousine, and positions on various corporate boards.
Thinking of that exchange the other day, I was reminded of something that Thomas Jefferson wrote to his fellow Virginian, the American solider and statesman Edward Carrington from Paris in the late 1780s. “If once the people become inattentive to the public affairs,” Jefferson wrote, “you and I and Congress and Assemblies, Judges, Governor, shall all become wolves.”
Flash back to the 21st century and ask yourself: why does the United States’ astonishingly wealthy economic elite – so flush that the 400 richest Americans possess among themselves as much wealth as the bottom 150 million US residents – suck yet more and more money, net worth, and plutocratic power into its hands? Ten years ago, the late brilliant iconoclastic US comedian and ranter George Carlin told audiences that “The real owners” of America “are the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget about the politicians….You have owners,” Carlin continued:
“They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the statehouses, the city halls. They’ve got the judges in their back pockets. And they own all the big media companies, so that they control just about all of the news and information you hear. They’ve got you by the balls. They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want; they want more for themselves and less for everybody else.”
“But I’ll tell you what they don’t want. They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking….They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago.”
“You know what they want? Obedient workers people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it. And, now, they’re coming for your Social Security. They want your fucking retirement money. They want it back, so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street. And you know something? They’ll get it. They’ll get it all, sooner or later, because they own this fucking place.”
Why does “the 1%” – Carlin’s “owners” of America (and of Americans) – function as the socioeconomic and sociopolitical equivalent of a pack of endlessly hungry and avaricious wolves, consigning millions of its “fellow Americans” to poverty, joblessness, and insecurity and destroying livable ecology (and hence the prospects for a decent future) all because they “want more for themselves?”
If you want my attempt at a full answer to that question, you’ll have to buy or borrow my latest book They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm Publishers, 2014). I go into significant depth on the historical specifics and interrelated processes of US wealth concentration, corporate globalization, financialization, deindustrialization, state capitalism, and the various modes and mechanisms of ruling class domination (of politics, media, education and more) in the neoliberal era.
My short answer to the question: because they can. They can for a lot of sometimes complex reasons (see my book’s fifth and longest chapter, titled “How They Rule: The Many Modes of Moneyed Class Power”) but above all perhaps because we let them and we let them because many of us – including many who occupy relatively safe and comfortable positions with considerable resources to help spark resistance – have for all intents and purposes given up on radical-democratic change. Again and again, I am struck by the pervasiveness, particularly among “educated” people (with college degrees and more), of the idea that there is no serious or viable popular resistance or alternative to the avaricious class rule of the wealthy few and their sociopathic capitalist system. The judgment comes down again and again in one form or another from academics and other professionals: the power of the wealthy wolves is just too deeply entrenched and the populace is too stupid and/or powerless to meaningfully rise up against the rich and powerful. The futility I have long heard expressed by professors, teachers, researchers, lawyers, journalists and other relatively privileged intellectual workers – many of them self-described “progressives” with no love for the rich and the profits system – is widespread.
Look again at the Carlin rant I quoted above. Thousands of relatively well-off audience members roared their approval when he said “They own you….they’ve got you by the balls….… They want your fucking retirement money…And they’ll get it all, sooner or later, because they own this fucking place.” Uproarious laughter filled concert halls as Carlin told people they were chattel whose “owners” won’t even leave them a pittance un which to retire.
Talk about surrender. The comedy tour in which Carlin made this statement was titled “Life is Worth Losing.” And so it, perhaps, when you are a slave, which is what you are when you are “owned.”
I realize that Carlin’s tour took place a decade ago, in the wake of the openly plutocratic messianic militarist George W. Bush’s nauseating re-election. But the dark pessimistic surrender seems no less routine among liberal and other professionals in the Age of Obama – a period that has given us yet another great lesson on how nothing really changes all that much because a Democrat (even a purportedly charismatic and “progressive” first black president marketed as the near messianic agent of “change”) sits in the White House.
Carlin might have added something to his tirade about how the masters want workers smart enough to run the machines and do the paper work but not smart enough to engage in critical thinking. The comedian could have noted that the rich also want critical thinkers who are pessimistic and defeated enough to give up on fighting concentrated wealth and power – people who are smart enough to understand the evil of the system but are also too depressed, distracted, divided, and/or demobilized to do anything about it, including engaging with the supposedly “obedient workers” and helping them struggle against the “owner” class.
“We live,” the British health researchers and equality advocates Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett noted five years ago, “in a pessimistic period.” It is no small problem. The mantra that “there is no alternative” to the arrogant and avaricious rule of the wealthy few is the seductive mental slavery of our time, a reflexive cognitive and emotional habit of capitulation to the supposedly God-like power of what might be called Capital Privilege. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that guarantees “because they can” with “because we can’t.”
An urgent task is to expose this “futile fatalism” (Mike Albert’s phrase) as a weapon of the rich and as profoundly stupid. It is deeply foolish because we are not in fact slaves (we have far more freedom to organize and resist than we seem to appreciate); because history past and present is rife with examples of popular resistance, rebellion, and revolution; and (above all) because futile fatalism is itself a force that pushes the balance of power yet further in the favor of the masters. Perhaps we have only a 20 percent, or worse, a 1 percent chance of success, of creating a better and democratic and sustainable nation and world no longer occupied by the “unelected [and eco-cidal] dictatorship of money.” Failure to believe in the worthiness of collective struggle for a decent and democratic future beyond that plutocratic occupation takes our odds down to zero.
“We are moving right now,” Mario Savio said in 1994, “in a direction which one could call creeping barbarism. We have to be prepared, on the basis of our moral insight, to struggle even if we do not know that we are going to win.” It’s not about certainty of outcomes or prediction. Democracy and the struggle for a decent society is not a financial derivative – a bet on the future. It is an existential imperative. We lose nothing by believing. We lose everything by not believing – quite literally everything give current environmental projections, which suggest that “we are really facing for the first time in human history the prospects of something like species destruction” (Noam Chomsky, reflecting four years ago on homo sapiens’ potential liquidation of its own species along with countless others through the global warming that results from excessive carbon emissions). As the radical philosopher Istvan Meszaros noted in early 2001, “Many of the problems we have to confront – from chronic structural unemployment to major political/military conflicts…as well as the ever more widespread ecological destruction in evidence everywhere – require concerted action in the very near future…The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.” Mass concerted action against the owners is a duty, not a probability (slim or high). The stakes could hardly be higher. It’s not about the crystal ball.
Paul Street is a writer and activist in Iowa City, Iowa.