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Why Are We Still Sycophants?

Bill Hicks had a joke. He said he hates how bosses tell him to look busy. -You make more than I do, why can’t you pretend I’m working?

Mind, it’s an old joke, and work has changed in the 30-odd years since he wrote it. An additional 10% of us hold college degrees. Thanks to W’s tweaks in nomenclature (albeit to skirt over-time pay) between 1 and 3 million are now managers. We’ve begun to at least talk about closing the gender and racial pay gaps.

And ‘associate’ and ‘team-member’-speak has helped us all look and sound more on par. Most importantly, we’ve breached the prospect of UBI, either a savior or its opposite, depending on who pays (-which I’ll discuss toward the end).

Still, the joke rails against how we accept the owner>worker view, and rightly, since our ‘gains’ may be all for naught. Despite our diplomas, we’re spending almost double what we did then with only 6% more income.i That puts us 30% deeper in household debt, while public debt -the go-to excuse for austerity- increased 5-fold.ii If you are injured at work, your compensation (in most states) is 1/3 what it was then.iii

Trump brags we have the lowest unemployment rate in history. I presume that means more people pretending to look busy. But either way, his tax cuts are outmoding us. While last year corporations did spend an added 20% on equipment, and R&D was up almost 35%, only a fraction of that meant hiring or raises. And they spent more on corporate buybacks than on all those combined.iv

Ergo, the bosses are making los, lots more. Record profits more. Enough to build life-like replacements that won’t rest their elbows on the counter, nor file a claim if they get broken.

-So why are we still a crew of sycophants? After all, looking busy digs at America’s core. Our (alleged) Protestant work ethic, not to mention our (alleged) High-Noon autonomy, wouldn’t abide us standing around. But that’s likely what we’re doing. A new studyv -one of many with like results- says added work doesn’t add productivity, and in fact reduce it by wearing holes in our physical and mental fabric. So, our spirit might just be their pretend.

It makes sense, ‘pretending’ is basic to capitalism. Marx explains it within the first pages of Kapital, and I’ve yet to hear a disproof. Pretend and you have a commodity. Pretend enough and you have a regime. But as with all regimes, coalescing power and retaining it beg very different legitimizations.

Thus, all manner of bosses, from enlightened billionaires to ‘resistance’ Democrats still demand the same submissive leap of faith as Hick’s front-desk manager. But now, instead of us miming away the hours, we’re to pretend they and it are working.

Think, China lends to us with the tacit condition that we’ll waste it on non-durable goods, instead of repaying our debt. Towns bear their throat to Amazon and Walmart, to create a few hundred jobs, knowing full-well it will cost more than it nets. Industries are consumed by mergers and acquisitions that reduce jobs, output, and typically cost more than they earn. There are reasons, you need a minimum 3% growth per year for a stable economy, so say economists. And I suppose pretending is one way to get it. But it’s just for the sake of -more capitalism.

More for what? Ironically, it’s not the big spenders that have laid waste to their world, but the big savers. Upper-capitalists have made astounding progress securing their fortunes, what with the tax cuts, money that appreciates -rather than depreciates- with time, and a government remiss to close tax havens. (We can seize Venezuela’s assets but not the Cayman’s?) Their stability is our instability.

Hence, Capitalism is getting harder to pretend, even for many bonified capitalists. Indeed, we hear rumors about the .001%, after stealing the 99%’s dinner, making desert of the remaining 1. Yet, somehow, we still call potlatches vanity, whilst hording the basics for our common survival in your offshore mattress is temperance, thrift, humility, even common sense. But the first rule of capitalism is the need -whether needed or not- for constant mobility, and seated regimes tend to be not very mobile.

-Are we looking at a future without Capitalism, but still run by the worst crop of capitalists?

Supply-side competition is effacing (it may have been a myth in the first place). Enormous firms with a hand in everything can expand and contract rapidly, and painlessly (for them); leaving what we call the gig economy. The World Bank 2019 annual report, which I wrote on previouslyvi, finds this the most pressing matter, and no surprise, hints at a resolution that protects the owners. In their words:

Even in advanced economies, the payroll-based insurance model is increasingly challenged by working arrangements outside standard employment contracts. …This Report …calls for a universal, guaranteed minimum level of social protection. It can be done with the right reforms, such as ending unhelpful subsidies; improving labor market regulations; and, globally, overhauling taxation policies.

-In other words, disinvestment in current social services, dismantling labor protections, and Trump’s tax cuts, already in effect. Replaced by:
What are some new ways of protecting people? A societal minimum that provides support independent of employment is one option. This model, which would include mandated and voluntary social insurance, could reach many more people.vii

-That is to say, Obamacare-like social security, no single-payer option.

The .001% will look grand endorsing UBI, knowing they won’t be taxed on off-shore and otherwise sheltered income. (2 of their roughly 4,000 members are already running as Democrats for president.) But, even after liquidating all the aid now requisitioned for the poor (and distributing it upward), the low end of the upper quintile, will still have to kick in the bulk of taxes, followed by the 2nd-highest quintile, etc.
But why do we keep falling for the same bait and switch?

Herbert Marcuse wrote in 1964 that the most singular achievement of capitalism was its ability to absorb its opposition, because ‘our efforts to prevent catastrophy overshadow our search for its causes’viii. Certainly, Naomi Klein added some useful insights in Disaster Capitalism. However, UBI, for example, isn’t getting rammed-through in a crisis, but whittled down -as did health care- with the support of those of us most-passionately committed to it. So what absorbs us in a non-crisis? I suspect, the opposite: ‘progress’.

First let’s backtrack. A century ago, Thorstein Veblenix suggested capitalism had less to do with wealth or accumulation, than redefining ‘class’ in a post-class society. It seems far too reductive for then, but perhaps gaining in truth now. During capitalism’s manifestation, professionalism meant the ability to shape power, and in-turn, it awarded mobility. Today, a lot of us sink more into college than we can expect to be paid, once we can at least say we hold a professional degree, and even the job, itself is not certain. Hence, our educations don’t guarantee us mobility, but something quite opposite; class identification.
It rings odd, since, from a Marxist point of view, if you are not owners you are workers, and those other so-called classes like ‘professionals’ fall away under capitalism. -But perhaps in substance only. Untethered, floating in the gig economy, we can still show our crest.

No doubt, forking over our future salaries to top-heavy, often slum-lord college administrations has something to do with how they, the bosses package ‘progress’. One example is the scramble to redress earlier bourgeois notions of race, gender, control of the environment, etc.; a just and needed task we pursue in earnest. However, so long as sitting governments, large corporations, and major news outlets steer the conversation (-sitting, large, and major thanks to the terms they claim to redress), it severs who, exactly holds power from the discourse of who, abstractly (white-males, etc.) holds it.

Once you’re in that discourse, supporting minority rights, or some (small) amount of economic redistribution sends the correct personal, intra-personal, and even ‘class’ message. The same is true of (at least lip-service to) green energy, fair-trade, and so on. Correct, not because they’d upend our current, despairingly-unjust system, but rather are the minimal steps we all must take to preserve it.

Of course, most of us don’t altogether buy the rich’s egality, but we do believe our’ own. America’s professional class -perhaps by misunderstanding cues about ‘culture’, and by correctly taking cues from American-style capitalism, holds undue willingness to pay. That is, to pay individually, for items they believe should be available to all, evidenced by the fraternal (or guilty) tone of the purchases; low-emissions, fair-trade, etc. But it’s exactly that willingness that prevents everyone getting them. And fact is, reducing our footprint, buying fair-trade, or driving a zero-emission car, today are a privilege, not a sacrifice.

Lazlo Zizek calls it the Ideological Fantasy; the mystical belief that our ideals inform our actions, even if we’ve worldly proof that we’re acting against them – ultimately, scrambling to save the world by saving the capitalist Left from the capitalist Right, hoping they’ll sink -on average- 10% more into social welfares, or apply a bit of moral suasion to induce twice the philanthropism.

But it’s a game of pretend. Because finding acceptable levels of inequality or returning 2 or 3% of their haul through development isn’t going to secure our’ future.

Like our ecosystem, the ‘progress through growth’ narrative is in tatters. We need universal equality not for raising the poor half as much as we need it for bringing the top down. No such village ever invented Round-Up or the bomb.

Let’s not pretend, most of the poorer world, and that includes the discarded population here, isn’t underserved, it’s abused. The biggest problems they face, violence, pollution, over-crowding, homelessness, landlessness, cancer, addiction, rising temperatures, war emanate from the northern-hemispheric death-star we call progress. Mostly from a few top-floor offices. And we, despite our goals, just look busy.

On the other hand, no one tells them to. Nor to pretend it’s working. -No need. For the poor, surviving is a full-time job.

Let’s not pretend.


[i] https://www.statista.com/topics/768/cost-of-living/

[ii] http://www.slate.com/articles/business/the_united_states_of_debt/2016/05/the_rise_of_household_debt_in_the_u_s_in_five_charts.html

[iii] http://www.slate.com/articles/business/the_united_states_of_debt/2016/05/the_rise_of_household_debt_in_the_u_s_in_five_charts.html

[iv] https://flowingdata.com/2015/03/10/decline-of-workers-compensation/

[v] https://www.theguardian.com/money/2019/feb/19/four-day-week-trial-study-finds-lower-stress-but-no-cut-in-output

[vi] https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/05/11/making-the-world-safe-for-precarity/

[vii] http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/816281518818814423/pdf/2019-WDR-Report.pdf

[viii] One Dimensional Man (1964)

[ix] The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899)