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The Power of Plutocracy


Last Tuesday, Mayday, 2012, tens of thousands from Occupy Wall Street and a coalition of unions and immigrant rights groups marched in New York, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and other major cities to protest economic inequality and to celebrate other possibilities. The dominant theme of these marches and rallies was economic justice, with a significant proportion of marchers expressing their desire for an alternative to capitalism.

Despite being four years into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, America, by aggregate measures, is about as rich as it has ever been. Per capita GDP has declined, but not nearly in proportion to the degree of economic misery being experienced by a large number of us. Our problem is that a small group of corporate executives and bankers have taken a wildly disproportionate share of what America produces and left only crumbs for the rest of us.

This epic of financial capitalism has produced little real wealth but it has been an effective tool for shifting existing wealth from those who produced it to a small group of plutocrats via a state / financial nexus. The only proposed solutions emanating from the plutocrat / state are for more of the same policies that have destroyed the American economy, polity and culture. The sad truth is that the economic elite benefit from our declining wages and the looting of our social resources in direct proportion to what we lose. The economic elite has launched a class war against us and they have indicated every intention of seeing it continue.

Current circumstances are understood in a general sense by most of us and in some great detail by a significant number. Legal scholars and current and former criminal prosecutors have identified a large number of actionable financial, war and environmental crimes committed by the financial and political elite that have gone un-prosecuted and unpunished. A social division exists where the rich and the politically connected have impunity for theirs crimes while the police and the surveillance state are used as tools of social control and political repression against the rest of us. Were redress available through the established order, criminal prosecutions of culpable elites would already have taken place.

Meanwhile, a set of concrete economic proposals that would immediately improve the lives of those most affected by the current economic crisis, as well those of the long-term dispossessed, exists without being enacted and with no impetus for enacting them from either major political party. These include:

(1)  A government works program that would guarantee a job to every person who can work and who wants a job

(2)  Medicare for all that would guarantee access to healthcare for all citizens regardless of their ability to pay

(3)  Expanded programs of food security that would guarantee healthy, adequate and nutritious food for everyone in America

(4)  Free access to public education for every American from pre-school through graduate school including trade school education that would feed the trades and the government works program

(5)  Increased funding for the arts that would revive American culture and shift the cultural focus from joyless striving to facilitating a creative, peaceful and nurturing world.

These programs would immediately put America back to work in socially useful and productive endeavors. These programs would stop the downward economic spiral that capitalist policies have produced and the newly employed would pay into social programs creating a new virtuous set of economic relationships.

Enacting these programs would require undoing the existing economic / political order that has created current conditions and that is determined to continue on the path that has led most of us to economic ruin. The political capture the existing plutocracy has achieved must be ended for meaningful change to occur. The power of the plutocracy lies in income inequality—political capture has been purchased with economic capture. Economic disparity is at the root of current conditions. This economic disparity derives from specific economic policies designed to bring it about and not from any process of nature. Economic disparity can begin to be rectified through a set of polices that include:

(1)  Set maximum total compensation for corporate executives at 3X the total compensation of the lowest paid workers.

(2)  Restore progressive taxation to 90+% of income that includes a wealth tax charged for the provision of programs to maintain social well being and stability (e.g. those listed above).

(3)  Fund political campaigns with public money alone and enact laws against private funding of political campaigns

(4)  Open the political process by including any candidate who can get 5,000 signatures of support in any campaign for national political office

(5)  Require that equal time be given to each of these candidates and require that media companies provide extensive platforms for political debate in exchange for the licensing privileges that they already enjoy

(6)  Review all government contracts to private industry and redirect contracts according to principles of maximizing social well-being, international peace and the nurturing of a peaceful, creative culture. Find new employment for those displaced in this process in the government works program if private jobs don’t exist for them.

(7)  Immediately end all military aggression overseas, bring the troops home to guaranteed jobs and redirect all military resources to productive use while maintaining the minimal structure necessary for mutual defense.

(8)  Immediately limit permissible banking activities to the straightforward provisioning of credit to unaffiliated creditworthy borrowers and place displaced bankers in government works programs if private employment is not available

These proposals are designed to provide a starting point for political dialogue. They are not the collective views of Occupy Wall Street or any group mentioned in this piece. With this understood, there already is a set of concrete proposals on the table from the plutocracy and their political servants. It includes the continued consolidation of wealth, endless war, increasing environmental destruction, increasing surveillance, control and political repression of the populace and the continued promotion of joyless consumption as the purpose of life. That is their vision. What then is ours?

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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