Saturday, November 19, 2011

How Did We Get Here? Politics in the Age of the Koch Brothers and #OWS

Here’s a video shot at the University of California-Davis. It shows Lt. John Pike of the UC-Davis police sauntering up to students associated with the Occupy movement and pepper spraying them, before backing slowly away in a heavily armed phalanx while demonstrators and onlookers chant “shame on you”:

I take this moment as emblematic of our current political situation. It is a situation in which about 2/3 of Americans sympathize with the Occupy movement's call for greater economic equality, but only half that number approve of the protests themselves, and no political party does anything to address the growing inequality. It's a situation, too, in which administrative leaders at all levels seem happy to tolerate police violence, which the right-wing media, led as ever by Fox News, presents as necessary and even heroic.  The people are angry, but they're wary of those who demonstrate on behalf of their interests, and the political elites prefer to address the situation with violence rather than reforms. How did we get to this sad state of affairs?

The answer, I think, has to do with changes in the attitudes of our various elites over the past few decades.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when elites from various fields — politics, business, finance, labor, journalism, religion, academe — would gather together and attempt to ameliorate whatever social and economic problems seemed of pressing importance. And they would gather in something like a spirit of enlightened self-interest, if not exactly of disinterest, trying to take a look at problems from a point of view other than that of immediate self-advancement. This, anyway, is what George Packer claims in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. Knowing a little bit about the history of social elites and their relation to the notion of disinterest or impartiality, I’m inclined to agree with him. Here’s what Packer says about the various American elites in the postwar era:

…the country’s elites were playing a role that today is almost unrecognizable. They actually saw themselves as custodians of national institutions and interests. The heads of banks, corporations, universities, law firms, foundations, and media companies were neither more nor less venal, meretricious, and greedy than their counterparts today. But they rose to the top in a culture that put a brake on these traits and certainly did not glorify them. Organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Committee for Economic Development, and the Ford Foundation did not act on behalf of a single, highly privileged point of view — that of the rich. Rather, they rose above the country’s conflicting interests and tried to unite them into an overarching idea of the national interest. Business leaders who had fought the New Deal as vehemently as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is now fighting health-care and financial reform later came to accept Social Security and labor unions, did not stand in the way of Medicare, and supported other pieces of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. They saw this legislation as contributing to the social peace that ensured a productive economy. In 1964, Johnson created the National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress to study the effects of these coming changes on the work force. The commission included two labor leaders, two corporate leaders, the civil rights activist Whitney Young, and the sociologist Daniel Bell. Two years later, they came out with their recommendations: a guaranteed annual income and a massive job-training program. This is how elites once behaved: as if they had actual responsibilities.
This establishment really does represent an accommodation of different elites to one another: business and finance came together with leaders of what Chris Hedges has called “the liberal class”: a group consisting of “the media, the church, the university, the Democratic party, the arts, and labor unions” (his book on the fate of these elites, The Death of the Liberal Class, makes chilling reading). Together, the moneyed elite and the liberal class worked out ways of sharing wealth and solving social problems that, however imperfect, kept the fabric of society together. The liberal class could feel it had delivered some justice to the disempowered, and the moneyed interest could rest assured that, with enough soup in every bowl, radicalism had been headed off.  Indeed, as Hedges notes, one function of the liberal class has been to “discredi[t] radicals within American society who have defied corporate capitalism and continued to speak the language of class warfare.” With the great mass of people placated, radicals discredited, and the position of business and finance secured (at a moderate cost) a social compact was maintained. This is not to be sneered at: the years prior to the war had shown the world (especially Europe) what the failure of social compacts, and the legitimization of certain kinds of radicals, looked like. No one wanted to go back to those days.

The postwar arrangement, Packer notes in passing, didn’t deliver for everyone: if you were African-American, or a woman, you’d probably find those postwar years something less than Edenic. I’d add other groups to Packer’s list, especially gay people, who are only now beginning to gain something like equality and something like a public voice. But for many people, the establishment seemed to deliver a decent life, with relatively secure employment and relative egalitarianism, with inexpensive public universities, and wealth far less polarized than it is today (we’ve gone from a postwar 40:1 CEO-to-worker pay ratio to a ratio of more than 400:1).

(If you are interested in the first modern instance of an amalgamation of different elites and their cultivation of an ethos of relative disinterestedness, you might want to read the bits about Addison, The Spectator, and the class dynamics of eighteenth century England in this post).

In Packer's view, the old establishment, with its alliance between moneyed and liberal elites, came to an end for two reasons: the "youth rebellion and revolution of the 1960s" and the economic troubles of the 1970s, brought about by "stagflation and the oil shock." Here, I think, he's only partially right, and very light on detail. It's certainly true that the student and New Left movements of the 60s (and, I would add, the 70s) challenged the old establishment. But Packer neglects to say why: it was the draft and the war, certainly, but it was also the coming into the public sphere of all the social groups the old establishment had left out: African-Americans, women, gay people, and others. They rightly questioned the representativeness of the old elites, and they rightly saw that, whatever degree of disinterest informed elite decisions, it masked a preference for whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality. The demands of repressed groups for representation, though, led to a backlash, as the established elites, and many of the non-elites benefitting from the old social compact, felt threatened. The moneyed elites that already felt they'd been asked to share a great deal resented being asked to share with even more people ("What! First the G.I. bill and now urban renewal on top of that?!"), and the hard-working white male non-elites sensed that their small privileges were under threat. This, I think, is the nature of the undermining of the old establishment during the 60s and 70s. When the oil shock came along, further undermining confidence in the old compact, it simply presented an opportunity for already existing cracks to widen.

As the fissures in the old compact widened, elites lost faith in the process of working together in relative disinterest for the good of all, and America began to resemble something more like the Hobbesian state of nature, with the war of all against all. Here's how Packer describes the oil-shock era and the subsequent end of a relatively disinterested establishment:
[The oil shock] eroded Americans’ paychecks and what was left of their confidence in the federal government after Vietnam, Watergate, and the disorder of the 1960s. It also alarmed the country’s business leaders, and they turned their alarm into action. They became convinced that capitalism itself was under attack by the likes of Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader, and they organized themselves into lobbying groups and think tanks that quickly became familiar and powerful players in U.S. politics: the Business Roundtable, the Heritage Foundation, and others. Their budgets and influence soon rivaled those of the older, consensus-minded groups, such as the Brookings Institution. By the mid-1970s, chief executives had stopped believing that they had an obligation to act as disinterested stewards of the national economy. They became a special interest; the interest they represented was their own. The neoconservative writer Irving Kristol played a key role in focusing executives’ minds on this narrower and more urgent agenda. He told them, “Corporate philanthropy should not be, and cannot be, disinterested.”
Among the non-disinterested spending that corporations began to engage in, none was more interested than lobbying. Lobbying has existed since the beginning of the republic, but it was a sleepy, bourbon-and-cigars practice until the mid- to late 1970s. In 1971, there were only 145 businesses represented by registered lobbyists in Washington; by 1982, there were 2,445. In 1974, there were just over 600 registered political action committees, which raised $12.5 million that year; in 1982, there were 3,371, which raised $83 million. In 1974, a total of $77 million was spent on the midterm elections; in 1982, it was $343 million. Not all this lobbying and campaign spending was done by corporations, but they did more and did it better than anyone else. And they got results.
If you remember the Carter administration, you remember what the end of the establishment looked like: bipartisanship came to an standstill in Washington, and it remains stuck in that mode today. And the moneyed elites ceased to see their well-being tied to that of the nation as a whole: their interest was self-interest plain and simple, without the amelioration of any enlightenment. There's a sad irony to all of this, in that the break-up of the old elites, and the airing out of their smoke-filled rooms, didn't lead to greater egalitarianism. "Getting rid of elites..." says Packer, "did not necessarily empower ordinary people." Indeed, when "Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers and Walter Wriston of Citicorp stopped sitting together on Commissions to Make the World a Better Place" and began "paying lobbyists to fight for their separate interests in Congress," says Packer, "the balance of power tilted heavily toward business." And there it has stayed, as indexes of wealth distribution and worker productivity and tax policy make plainer and plainer every day.

The massive, well-organized deployment of enormous sums of money by the business and (especially) the financial elites have in large measure made American politicians, regardless of party, into the tools of the wealthy elites: Bush cut taxes on the very rich to near-historic lows, and the right-wing Roberts court more or less legalized political bribery in the Citizens United decision, but it was Bill Clinton who began the deregulation of Wall Street that led first to massive profits for the few, then to an terrible crisis for the many, and it was Democrat Chuck Schumer who kept capital gains taxes so low that most hedge fund managers pay taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries. The Koch brothers and those of their ilk don't consider themselves stewards of national well-being, not really: they consider themselves people who have a right to buy the means to rig the system ever-further in their favor. For them, this is simply their prerogative. Acting on this presumed prerogative has made them very wealthy, but it has also made their whole class less and less legitimate in the eyes of the public, despite the constant drumbeat of political advertisements and the far-from-disinterested vision of events presented on Fox News and other corporate media platforms. 

The liberal elites — mainline churches, universities, elements of the media, labor leaders — have been complicit in these sad developments. Unable to ameliorate the naked self-interest of financial and corporate elites, they have clung to their own small privileges while no longer serving a useful role.  They simply do not deliver for the broad population as they used to do, and in failing to do so they have become despised by many in the working and middle classes. As Chris Hedges puts it,
The liberal class has become a useless and despised appendage of corporate power. And as corporate power pollutes and poisons the ecosystem and propels us into a world where there will be only masters and serfs, the liberal class, which serves no purpose in the new configuration, is being abandoned and discarded. The death of the liberal class means there is no check to a corporate apparatus designed to enrich a tiny elite and plunder a nation.... It ensures that the frustration and anger among the working and middle classes will find expression outside the confines of democratic institutions and the civilities of a liberal democracy.
That's a difficult pill for many of us to swallow, but it does explain some of the most notable political developments of our time. It explains the urges behind the Tea Party (which saw itself as an outsider movement, at odds with all elites, but was co-opted almost from the start by the moneyed elites). And it explains what's been happening these past two months in New York, in Oakland, in Chicago, and in towns and cities across the country. The Occupy Wall Street movement can be seen as several things. It can be seen as a desperate move for political expression by those who see the failure of all elites to even try to stop the erosion of the social and economic position of the vast majority of Americans. It can also be seen as an attempt to wrest the old liberal classes away from their complicity with the now-completely-dominant moneyed elites — to revitalize a liberal class on its deathbed. It can also be seen in a less charitable light: I recently saw a nephew of mine and his friends disparage the Occupy movement as "a hipster convention" of people who looked like they were "in line for the latest iPhone." I think this is wrong, but I see where it comes from: it comes from the correct perception that the old liberal elites ("a hipster convention" signifies this class) have been more concerned with their petty privileges ("the latest iPhone") than with delivering for the millions of Americans whose relative position has been steadily degrading for decades. I like to hope that the Occupy movement can both give expression to the political needs of the many, and can give the old liberal class the backbone it needs to stand up to the ever-expanding domination of American life by a tiny financial elite.
If we don't have this hope, what's left?


  1. But doesn't what you (and Hedges) are saying here mean that the liberal class as protector of basic human decency is actually completely finished, dead and buried? And doesn't OWS essentially recognize this as a basic premise for its existence? OWS accepts union support for example, and there are a lot of good union people, but they are not really saying, please let's go back to the era "liberal elites — mainline churches, universities, elements of the media, labor leaders — ...[clinging] to their own small privileges." Perhaps in the face of these and even much more sinister entrenched corporate/plutocratic interests, OWS's aims may prove naive before stark, naked power. But I don't see OWS yearning for a return to liberal elite patricianism. From what I can tell, they really want to completely reorganize society along the lines of some very basic egalitarian concepts. It may seem hopeless (as you suggest here), because most probably underestimate the force of the state/corporate backlash in store if OWS continues down the road it's embarked on, but I think that the die is already cast.

  2. Well, it's hard to generalize about something like OWS, which strikes me as something in an embryo stage (OWS in its present form may or may not last, but I think it is part of an emerging political paradigm, which could go in many directions).

    But even so: I think the main point of OWS seems to be that financial elites specifically, and corporate elites in general, have too much power. The imbalance of power could be remedied in many ways. Some probably would like to see capitalism itself come to an end, but others would simply like to see capitalism civilized -- that is, made to work in a civically responsible way. That could come about through some radical solution, or (more likely) through some incrementalism and compromise.

    I imagine the whole process will involve radical demands, reformist proposals, and begrudging compromise. We could do better, and we could do worse, than to come out with something like the solutions of the 50s and 60s at the end of it all. In any event, OWS will only be one voice in what happens from here.