The following is excerpted from my new book Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think.
When I was a student at Princeton University I learned from my anthropology studies that the concentration of power in the hands of the few is common to all cultures, societies, nations, tribes, cities, towns, and villages. Even where the thirst for self-governance and democracy is strong (as was the case in New England towns before the American Revolution against King George III) wealthy Tories were there too. In Central and Western Massachusetts, the farmers used the term “the River Gods” to describe the rich merchants using the Connecticut River as a profitable trading route. These days, most people protesting for economic justice use the term “the One Percent” to describe the ultra-small group of people who wield enormous influence over our society today.
There is something about the differences in skill, determination, lineage, avarice, and pure luck that stratifies most people from the rulers who dominate them. In the political realm, the few become dominant because they hoard wealth and are driven to exercise power over others. When a small group of people rules a society the political system is considered an oligarchy; when only money and wealth determine how a society is controlled, the political system is a plutocracy.
Of course there are variations in the degrees of authoritarianism and cruelty that each system exercises over the communities it relies upon for workers and wealth. Scholars have resorted to using phrases like “benign dictatorships” or “wise rulers” or “paternalistic hierarchies—” to describe lighter touches by those few who impose their rule over the many. Thomas Paine simply called them tyrannies. People, families, and communities can only take so much abuse before they rise up to resist. The job of the rulers is always to find that line and provide the lowest level of pay, security, housing, consumer protection, healthcare, and political access for society so that they can extract and hoard the greatest amount of wealth, power, and immunity from justice for themselves. In many ways, the majority of Americans live in a democracy of minimums, while the privileged few enjoy a plutocracy of maximums.
In a plutocracy, commercialism dominates far beyond the realm of economics and business; everything is for sale, and money is power. But in an authentic democracy, there must be commercial-free zones where the power of human rights, citizenship, community, equality, and justice are free from the corrupting influence of money. Our elections and our governments should be such commercial-free zones; our environment, air, and water should never fall under the control of corporations or private owners. Children should not be programmed by a huckstering economy where their vulnerable consciousness becomes the target of relentless corporate marketing and advertising.
American history demonstrates that whenever commerce dominates all aspects of national life, a host of ills and atrocities have not just festered and spread, but become normal—enslavement, land grabs, war, ethnic cleansing, serfdom, child labor, abusive working conditions, corrupt political systems, environmental contamination, and immunity from the law for the privileged few. History also shows that whenever there have been periods when enough of the country organizes and resists, we see movements of people and communities breaking through power. Progress is made. Rights are won. Education and literacy increase. Oppression is diminished. It was in this manner that people of conscience abolished the living nightmare imposed by the laws and whips of white enslavers. The nation moved closer to promises of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” expressed in the Declaration of Independence. We won more control over our work, our food, our land, our air, and our water. Women secured the right to vote. Civil rights were elevated and enforced. Public schools, improved environments, workplace collective bargaining, and consumer protections did not spontaneously evolve; they were won by people demanding them and breaking through power.
These moments of great progress are expressed in terms of new legislation, regulations, and judicial decisions that directly benefit the life, liberties, and pursuit of happiness of most Americans. From the abolition of slavery to the introduction of seat belts, great social gains have been achieved when people mobilize, organize, and resist the power of the few. The problem is that these liberating periods of humanitarian and civilizational progress are of shorter duration than the relentless commercial counterforces that discourage and disrupt social movements and their networks of support. Some commentators have used the bizarre term “justice fatigue” to describe the pullback that often occurs when communities of resistance are faced with increased surveillance, infiltration, harassment, and arrest. A more accurate term is repression.
Concentrated power in the hands of the few really should matter to you. It matters to you if you are denied fulltime gainful employment or paid poverty wages and there are no unions to defend your interests. It matters to you if you’re denied affordable health care. It matters to you if you’re gouged by the drug industry and your medication is outrageously expensive. It matters to you if it takes a long time to get to and from work due to lack of good public transit or packed highways. It matters to you if you and your children live in impoverished areas and have to breathe dirtier air and drink polluted water and live in housing that is neglected by your landlord. It matters to you if your children are receiving a substandard education in understaffed schools where they are being taught to obey rather than to question, think and imagine, especially in regards to the nature of power.
If you’re a little better off, it matters to you when your home is unfairly threatened with foreclosure. It matters to you when the nation is economically destabilized due to Wall Street’s crimes, and your retirement account evaporates overnight. It matters to you if you can’t pay off your large student loans, or if you can’t get out from under crushing credit-card debt or enormous medical bills due to being under-insured. It matters to you if you are constantly worried about the security of your job, or the costly care of your children and elderly parents.
“We live in a beautiful country,” writes historian Howard Zinn. “But people who have no respect for human life, freedom, or justice have taken it over. It is now up to all of us to take it back.” To better assess what it specifically takes to do just that, it is important to understand how the people profiting from plutocratic forces strategically and regularly dominate old and new circumstances with powerful controlling processes.