Got Plutocracy?

Americans like to keep things simple and direct, so here it is: they rule. For the simple reason that they (the ruling class) have all the money. The top 5% of US citizens own almost  2/3 of the country’s wealth, or 63.5%. Compare that massive share to 12.8% for the bottom 80% — that is, “the rest of us,” as Rhonda Winter puts it in the excellent article from which this pie chart is taken.

Now go a little further, into the research she drew her chart from — a briefing paper of the Economic Policy Institute called “The State of Working America” — and you find that the top 1% holds over 1/3, or 35.6%, of the country’s net worth. Elsewhere, in The Nation, you will find such interesting tidbits as “In 2006, the top 0.01 percent averaged 976 times more income that America’s bottom 90%” — a thousand-fold gap between “them” and “the rest of us.”

click it for the big picture

The whole point is, though, that very few people go any further, because very few people have any idea how unequal the United States has become. We are, apparently, a nation of idealists, which is a good thing. We are also, however, a nation of blind idealists, which is a pretty bad thing across the board. A couple of psychologists named Norton and Ariely did a study comparing people’s ideas of what inequality is and what it should be with the actual facts on the ground. Anyone interested in creating a more progressive political order should turn up the attention meter right here.

It turns out that in strictly economic terms, Americans are not full-on egalitarians, but on average, they think everyone should have at least a piece of the pie. They think the top 20% should have around 30% of the wealth, the bottom 20% should have around 10%, and so on according to a smoothly sliding scale. They realize it’s not true, of course, and they estimate that the top 20% may in reality be holding over half of the spoils. What they do not realize is not only that the top 20% swallows a whopping 85% of the pie (with, of course, the top 5% taking the lion’s share of that). Even more crucially, they also do not realize that the bottom 40% — what economists call the 4th and 5th quintiles — are for all practical purposes off the chart, simply invisible, because they (or maybe “we,” depending on who you are) own only 0.2% and 0.1% of the wealth respectively. Let’s put that in plainer terms. Almost half the people in this country get almost nothing from the deal.

                              source: Norton and Ariely, pdf here


I would draw two conclusions from this psychological study. The first is that the United States is ripe for (and even wildly overdue for) a political revolt against the plutocracy. No doubt you will reply, “But that’s exactly what the Tea Party is calling for!” And so they are, in part. But every day the newspaper shows that most of the Tea Party rage against Wall Street is being successfully channeled into rage against Big Government, while the resentment against taxation acts to preserve the massive tax cuts that for the past thirty years have overwhelmingly benefited the super-rich. An atavistic fear of Obama’s black skin and a constant barrage of ideology from Fox News and the Koch brothers’ think tanks and political action committees seem to be doing the job just perfectly for the plutocracy. However, as unemployment rises even while the profits of the super-rich increase, I am not sure this situation can go on indefinitely. Beware the day when right-wing rage from the red-state grassroots finds a serious political translation, because even if it castigates the rich, the sound of that vengeful and nationalistic voice will not be agreeable to your ears.

This leads to my second conclusion. We organic intellectuals on the Left — and this “we” is finally serious, I am speaking to those who might actually read this blog — are not doing our job. We don’t have no Tea Party. We are for equality, social democracy, outright socialism, a workers’ revolution, all power to the multitudes or whatever, but we are not getting the word out to the left-of-center masses. We have the information, thanks to studies like the ones I have been quoting, but we are not able to turn information into action, not even on the simplest of demands: tax the rich and control the banksters. Yet these very simple demands could lead directly onwards to more progressive policies that we are all support, such as cutting the military budgets, achieving universal health care, restoring public education and replacing the prison economy with job-producing community development programs. It’s clear that the Dems will not do these things, because in their vast majority they belong to the upper 5%. So we have to create the conditions for a political revolt from the grassroots, and we have to do it in a way that is not simply cooptable by smooth-talking people like the current president.

Here’s one idea, only one among many. Copy the image at the top of the article and take it down to your local button-making shop. Pick a fat button and ask them to put big letters around the bottom that say, “Got Plutocracy?” Get a whole bunch of those buttons, wear them, distribute them and start talking to whoever you meet about the facts and figures that are discussed in this blog post and in any of hundreds of readily available left-of-center publications. Start an open, public, regularly meeting group to discuss those facts and figures and many other things that make the present what it is. Do your job as a public intellectual, educate the people around you and learn from them, build grassroots awareness and rage wherever your roots happen to be. Hold the course in that direction as the unemployment figures rise, and make contact with as many similar groups as you can find. All of this will lead in very interesting directions. Keep it up and maybe soon we’ll all get together for a big ‘ole political banquet and finally eat the rich!



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5 Responses to “Got Plutocracy?”

  1. bonalibro Says:

    Right on, Brian. I write on this topic, too, among others, and have even written a novel on it. Unfortunately, the state of our economy forced me to expatriate for the sake of making a living and I cannot do what you advocate, except through occasional blog posts and comments on widely read media outlets. But the message is certainly being drowned out by the agents of the Plutocracy.

    I fear, though, that the Internet has been offered up to the masses as a place to vent, more than anything else, the effect of which is just to forestall the leftward rebellion that’s needed.

    • Brian Holmes Says:

      Hello, thanks for the comment. I have just checked out your blog and, having read Chris Hedges’ Death of the Liberal Class, you reminded me that I should read Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy, Inc. So thanks, I will read that. Rev here, for anyone interested:

      The Internet has had different effects, initially enabling the counter-globalization movement, then seeming to create a new “inter-passivity” (as Zizek says) and now emerging as an amazing tool in the Middle East. Who knows what the future holds? I do think we have to go beyond venting and get back to meeting and organizing. The leftward rebellion is really necessary.

  2. Rodrigo Blanco Says:

    Brian, one of the things that most interests me is this passive subjectivity present in such perceptions that the lower classes are actually better off than they really are (for example) or what happens when one is presented with such facts, after the wow/surprise/shock factor is gone, one returns to the couch and turns on the TV or plays AngryBirds on ones brand new iPad. I like your idea of meeting groups because they have the power to change social practices at a more ingrained level, but I’m always left thinking that there’s a 1-2 thats always necessary but that “we” (the “we” that you invoke above) commit the error (rampant in portions of the marxist tradition) that knowledge alone (the 1 without the 2) is sufficient to do something about things like the wealth/power gap.

    • Brian Holmes Says:

      Rodrigo, you’re certainly right, knowledge is not enough. But politics is really nothing more than a kind of meaningful and decisive collective speech that leads to changes in the way that people act; so I think we can start by talking in groups, by spreading this capacity to talk in public and that’s what I want to try these days.

  3. Dan S Wang Says:

    Greetings Brian!

    What I love about your writing and thinking is, you don’t leave the “what is to be done question” up in the air as a point of ending your posts and essays. There is in fact plenty to be done, and yes, it does begin with making the buttons, organizing the conversations. And, in the end, getting one’s butt(ons) out into the public in a really loud and influential way. Running on radical platforms for office–county clerk, school board, etc. That is the only way we’ll ever push the center-right/center-center to the center-left. Short of occupying their offices, blocking the way to their getaway cars, causing major physical headaches. Or, in addition to.

    But for messaging purposes, running for office is hard to beat. Radical right wingers are not embarrassed to run on platforms of tearing it down (in their own image); neither should we.

    The problem, as I see it, is less about ideological purities and the risks of co-optation presented by electoral engagement than the fact that the organic intellectuals, as you say, at least in their modern day form, are shut out of the local. The local is from where the social movements translate their organizing into decision-making power, ie on the school boards, etc. But we who are (sadly?) cosmopolitan, ie who have lived in different places, left our places of childhood, been around the world, have no single allegiance or identification with a place, etc, are virtually shut out of the game of local politics. Obama’s debacle in some ways signals the real death of the cosmopolitan, should he lose or even be seriously challenged; an urban and urbane figure like him will not be trusted again for a long time.

    But do we even know, if we have been shut out? When is the last time an unapologetically cosmopolitan figure ran in a local contest?

    Until we hash this out further, I’ll make my posters, and you can make your buttons. Then maybe we’ll eventually get our fellow lefty friends to ask, not What is to be done? but, How can we do more?

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