APATHY AND RIOTING: TWO APPROACHS TO A FRACTURED POLITICAL ECONOMY

 The common folks of my small unincorporated village in Northern California are grumbling about capitalism’s negative impacts on their lives.  They usually don’t phrase it like that, but rather they blame the government or the rich or a given political party or the whole bunch of them that the folks of my community call “they.”  “They are screwing us.”  But we don’t have any riots in my village – ones like we see in the streets of the Middle East, London, Greece, Chile or now Israel.  They just grumble.  Why is that? 

 

I think there are two main reasons: (1) they think this will eventually and automatically get better; or, (2) they think that things will never change and that there is nothing they can do about the negatives they are creating “Back East” (to be read Washington DC). 

 

Most of my neighbors have not read any academic treatises about capitalism and certainly don’t understand globalization and the neoliberalist ideas that have taken hold of the global economy recently.  They don’t think or complain about the economic system or processes.  They focus on them i.e., my neighbors personalize the locus of their problems. 

 

Until and unless my neighbors begin to understand that the sources of their economic problems are not the result of any given person or political party my neighbors will not be rioting in the streets. 

Did I mention that very few of my neighbors have a college education?  Not only are money and the means to produce it systemically limited and held by a few within the capitalist system; but also education.  Some villagers managed to graduate from high school and some didn’t.  Both sets get their news, such as it is, from the highly-compressed and slanted TV “News at Six.”  They seem more interested in the commercials than what is going on in London or Tripoli. 

 

My neighbors would not understand the point made by a brilliant author in the recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) called “The Great Splintering” (http://blogs.hbr.org/haque/2011/08/the_great_splintering.html) who writes that the rioters in London are now beginning to perceive “the existence of hidden faultlines (sic) that lie quivering beneath the humdrum everyday blandishments of society as we live it.”  The author goes one to point out that the social contract has been “torn up.”  Unfortunately, my neighbors haven’t read Rousseau and would think the social contract was something applied to an automobile or a tractor.

 

But this reluctant villager (I'm temporarily trapped here) agrees that the social contract, if it ever existed, was a massive historical hoodwink.  The HBR author seems to see what I see i.e., that the political economy, and its attendant juridical frameworks, are unfairly constructed.  For years I have been writing that the fabrication of the political economy from the Neolithic onwards has resulted in a set of rules and institutions that serve the few at the expense of the many.  Our HBR author points out that if you steal a video game you go to jail; but if you run your bank or too-large-to-fail corporation to the brink of disaster, the politicos bail you out.  My neighbors are angry about what the banks and financial wizards did to plunge their lives into “foreclosure-land.”  But they don’t frame their irritation in terms of the failure of the social contract or “hidden fault lines” of capitalism.  If they did, their irritation might escalate to fury.  It might. 

 

One preventative to such an escalation is that all of my neighbors, save a handful of old timers, didn’t go through the Great Depression, or were asleep or shooting spitballs during that lecture in high school.  They have lived through the greatest economic boom in history – what I think of as the “affluence bubble.”  My generation has been afflicted with what I call “Affluenza,” but most people have enjoyed the illness – till recently anyway.  My neighbors don’t think the bubble of affluence has burst; just that it has a slow, fixable leak and soon the people who caused the pinprick will plug the hole.  Such optimism. 

 

There must have been a lecture in their high school history classes about Robber Barons, but maybe they thought that was “ancient history.”  It was not.  While middle class and lower class incomes have been steadily dropping within the capitalist world since the 1970s, the rich have been getting richer.  The guys who created the economic meltdown in America and Europe, for example, still got their annual bonuses and many top bankers got golden parachute payments to aid them as they retired to their villas.  Robber Barons are alive and eating caviar somewhere in the Caribbean or the south of France. 

 

My neighbors sense that their lives are showing diminishing returns, that things are getting worse while the politicos bicker and the guys at the top get fatter.  But they don’t see this as a systemic problem; nor that the declines in human security will continue; though if they do my neighbors will probably grumble and tighten their belts, rather than riot in the streets.  After all, who can fight City Hall and Washington DC seems a long way off.  It may frighten them that people like Texas Governor Rick Perry, recently pictured brandishing a pistol at a political (evangelical) rally, are running for president.  After all, Perry claims that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional and should be abolished.  They may sense that the wheels are coming of the state automobile, but they’re hopeful that there’s a garage around the corner.  Could Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann be a good mechanic? 

 

As I look around my village, with its two tattoo parlors and three beer bars and a bunch of churches, I wonder if filling your arms with pretty designs is not the equivalent of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  And the damn beer makes you fat and whistles a tune called diabetes.  Why else would a community of fifteen hundred souls have these establishments and no park in which children can play and seniors can sun themselves on park benches?  Are TVs, video games and Budweiser really solutions to the malaise? 

 

Perhaps not, but they are consonant with the culture of acceptance that pervades my village and the countries that have been experiencing the post-World War II bubble of opulence.  Things got better, so if they are not better now, have a Bud.  But wait!  There’s more!  You don’t have to do without, even if things have slowed down.  There’s a legalized loan shark store on nearly every corner of the town down the road (our village is too small to have such a sophisticated establishment).  And advertisements for more credit cards come in the mail every day.  Former Congressmen and movie stars on TV hawk reverse mortgages as a way to siphon value out of your home to consume even more, although my neighbors are faintly concerned that it might not be a good idea to convert real estate into beer, video games and “America’s Top 250 with HD” on Dish TV.  But after all, when things get better – and they always do – we can pay off the debts and get out of hock.  If times are stagnant, they will flow again –won't they? 

 

The villagers are not aware that real incomes for most people have been steadily falling for decades, partly because they have been able to buy all the stuff in Wal Mart with borrowed dough.  The culture of acceptance that seems to pervade my village allows them to see the stalemate in government and greedy bankers way off in the distance as not really having much to do with them, as long as Wal Mart doesn’t close down and some unseen force doesn’t snatch away their credit cards.  To them the capitalist system is not fatally flawed, it is just suffering from a head cold.  These sniffles come and go and, anyway, the beer’s cold at the local Stop-n-Shop.    

 

If the system is heavily tilted toward the already-privileged it doesn’t concern them because they seem to be able to get their stuff even in these hard times.  Their kids won't be able to go to college, but what the hell, neither did they and most villagers had jobs, until recently anyway.  This downturn is just temporary.  Just as they did, their kids will attend, what our HBR author calls, “The University of Nowhere.”  What if their grown kids have few prospects and still live at home?  No need to protest.  There is unease in the village, but no need for unrest.

 

My village is far from Washington DC, the London riots, Tahir Square and all these other places where there are “creaks and cracks” in the foundations of society.  It is difficult to notice the rumblings of a volcano about to erupt if you don’t have the educational equipment to measure the tremors.  Few people in my village read The Economist, The New York Times or the Financial News.  They don’t read great thinker/writers like Umair Haque, and anyway his name would scare the hell out of them.  They’re having a hard enough time with José and Eduardo. 

 

My villagers have never heard of Adam Smith and they don’t know what neoliberalism is all about.  They might have a vague memory of some boring history lesson about the “invisible hand,” but they didn’t see the relevance of that then and they still don’t.  What they don’t understand is that the owner of that hand is a proctologist and he is slipping on the rubber gloves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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