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What Plutarchy Nurtures

Photograph Source: Knight Center for Journalism – CC BY 2.0

Maybe you spend most of your time online or wish you could because cyberspace was here to greet you at birth, and it’s been family to you in a way that the analog world can’t compete.You like Nature, the video game. And so on. Or maybe you have a richer social life online than offline. You have so many friends on Facebook that when you die, a real-world action, you’ll live forever as a Facebook friend. Or, maybe events in the real world like impeachment, planetary warming, war, and rising incivility in your surround has you retreating to cyberspace, where you only blood in a video game. Or just maybe you make a very good living spending your work week online, and you wish your family was an online family to enjoy your success with you.

As far as society and all its institutions, including government, is concerned, none of this is a good thing. Replacing the real with simulacra and reality with hyperreality is shit. It’s a serious derangement of mind.

The question then is why are we so effed up that we leave the Earth behind and dwell in cyberspace?

I’d say it’s the corruption of things by plutarchy, that is, money and power creating the conditions of our discontent, the conditions that have us going into cyberspace and going up our own rear ends, which is a rude and crude way of saying we gaze into our own navels and consult with ourselves. We may think we’re surfing other minds but it’s our own mind at the controls circling endlessly within the coordinates own minds have gotten before it closed the doors on the outside world. Tragically for all of us, we now have a president who processes the world in exactly this way.

There’s an easily imagined reason why more profit is made if your “Everyday American” surfs his or her own navel, old time “navel gazing” — profits already made by the few are saved from erosion if the many are so occupied. If you got off your daily cyber soma tablet of endless, mindless distractions, over stimulation and repression of what might spoil your “Wokeness,” you’d wind up noting the conditions of the real world, i.e. a society pitching headfirst into a moshpit of violence, and a planet we’re destroying as we “grow” and “progress.” You’d go from stunned to angry and devote yourself to doing something a la Greta Thunberg.

Everything you’ve repressed in order to avoid “negative attitudes,” threats to your Wokeness, and the micro-aggression of reality would visit you. What is this Wokeness other than a way to feel good about your prettified lifestyle by showboating how much you feel for un-prettified lives? Is this a wisecrack thrown out against deep Buddhist enlightenment, or Aristotelian Eudaimonia or Christ’s Beatitudes? A fast track to salvation or Jungian individuation?

If you weren’t over-stimulated to the point of being stunned, repressed to obliviousness, you’d be with Elizabeth Warren demanding deep structural change, and with Bernie Sander demanding a totalizing revolution. In brief, you’d be a danger to our Wild West economics – all growth is of profit – and threatening our market efficiency meme.

If you don’t think both Warren’s and Sander’s true creative destruction of the private health insurance, Big Pharma, and fossil fuel industries have not pushed those money-making enterprises to throw gazillions against this attack on them, then you probably believe President Trump is “looking out for the little guy.”

The problem I am laying out is one in which two widely divided economic classes are, in far different ways, not positioned economically to help mitigate global warming. The immiserate precariat class literally cannot afford to pay attention to this threat to human habitation of this planet. The wealth class must give up their consuming ways in order to be of help. They must in short shun their own wealth as a problem and live like Have Nots. Following 5th century Anthony the Hermit, they must give up the car, plane and yacht and get a bicycle.

Thus, the way to tackle our global warming problem is to tackle our wealth divide.

We have been tackling it from the Have Not side, as if work not welfare, moral hazards, no child left behind, head starts, and every manner to “solving” poverty by uplifting the conditions of those immiserated — and immiserated quite axiomatically by our economic system, rather like the results of a Monopoly game – would bridge the wealth divide. But it’s the more than ample side we need to focus on, the wells and larders that are full, not empty. We need to go those who have water to put out the fire, not go to those living in the desert.

Taxing for redistribution is the chosen answer of our Democratic presidential candidates, to various degrees. That remedy continues to face the implanted logic it always has in the U.S. Those who have wealth have earned it and deserve to keep it. Those who don’t have wealth yet have equal opportunity to do the same. The failure to do so should not be rewarded. This has been a go to position that has always gotten a lot of acceptance in the U.S, not simply because the wealthy are in positions, political and corporate, to popularize it, but also because Americans perceive heavy taxes on the wealthy as un-American, too socialist, and because they identify with the wealthy in that they can or their children can at some point join the wealth class. They don’t want taxes to burden their future, however illusionary such a future may be.

Let’s face it, the long running campaign of the wealthy and powerful to keep their taxes low is deeply engrained in every American’s, rich or poor, psyche. It’s insane but there it is.

Some 60 million Americans have three times the wealth of the entire middle class, 60% of the population. The top 1% owns more wealth than the entire middle class. Over 40 million people in the United States live below the poverty line, twice as many as it was fifty years ago, and one eight of the total population, a statistic that brought the German public broadcast service, DW, to produce the documentary, How Poor People Survive in the United States, Nov. 2019, available on YouTube.

The products of such a severe wealth divide are all around us. The obscene behavior of a wealth class that uses its wealth to wall itself off from those they fear, namely a struggling precariat class, would get much greater play in the media if the media owners themselves weren’t filled with the same fear. The same situation holds for those who hold elected office, that office out of the reach of anyone either not rich or without the support of the rich.

When the rich inhabit influential domains of power they identify with a need to preserve both the wealth and the power, which means they identify with the moneyless predominately as a threat to their wealth and power. As a sidebar, I would mention that cyberspace has produced a breed of “Influencers” that can only be said to be defending plutarchy unintentionally by further degenerating the critical faculties of those who are influenced by them. This degeneracy in affective attention is a byproduct of cyberspace travel, and so an obstruction to a critical attention to the destructiveness of plutarchy. “Affective attention takes time,” Franco Berardi writes, “and cannot be shortened or speeded up. Hyper-stimulation and visual overload are leading to a disorder in the emotional elaboration of meaning.” (AND: Phenomenology of the End, 2015)

Practically speaking, it is far easier to respond to the asks of the rich than those of the poor and struggling, the former closely attending what may harm their wealth status and also positioned to penalize those who do the harming, while the latter remain confused as to who and what does them harm and are not positioned to retaliate. Again, the presence of Trump in the White House is clear evidence of such confusion.

The sharp focus of the wealthy can be observed in the sharp focus of the pre-Trumpian Republican Party, while the confusion of the masses can be observed in so much recent history, from attachments to the Tea Party, to rancor thrown at the Affordable Care Act, to assaults on labor unions, to nixing a helpful inheritance tax because it was branded a “Death Tax,” to undermining public schools, to seeing a recuperative progress in gentrification, to seeing among their own kind enemies to themselves, to turning away from solvable economic problems to the complications of the existential politics of identity, to seeing in the mountebank Donald Trump, a savior.

Dazed, confused, full of anxiety and fear on a day to day basis, fed on the soma of a cyberspace which does nothing better than project chaos, this new precariat class is now a solid production of plutocratic power.

What we see in gentrification, for example, is a realization by the rich that they do not have to isolate themselves in gated compounds far from the Centre Ville but can invade the Centre Ville and remodel it as they see fit, use the power of their purse to give a neighborhood the kind of personalized make-over they give themselves. Gentrification is intrinsically a problem in an envisioned egalitarian democracy because it can only exist in vastly unequal environments.

The gentrifiers gild the houses, the shops, the food, the schools, and the education of their children. Instead of improving the lot of pre-gentrified working- and middle-class Brooklyn life, for instance, which would have meant labor not crushed by capital, all of Brooklyn became vulnerable to the take-over by a wealth class. Gentrifiers drive their hybrids over the bones of the old Brooklyn, as they do in some many Centre Ville they have invaded. This is plutarchy’s invading army.

Some of the invading horde arrive with the baggage of inherited, legacy wealthy but most arrive either on the meritocratic express or the Chance express, mostly taken by cybertech innovators. While the meritocratic path is an educational one, the clever tech discovery path of say Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg, depended on dropping out of that path. And unlike the meritocratic path, the Chance one is grounded in — Chance. There’s no path, no degrees, no tests, no profession. Whether there are more young people on that pathless path or on the meritocratic path to some professional income, or which path is represented more in the wealth class doesn’t affect the fact that we cannot outplay Chance with Choice.

But we can do something about meritocracy.

The temperament of meritocracy is anxiety, an anxiety that a ladder will not be climbed to the very top, an anxiety that others will step on your fingers on your way to the top, an anxiety that your children will attend unionized public schools swelling with diversity, and yet, for all that, un-Woke.

Inherited, legacy wealth may be a tax resolvable condition, but it is meritocracy and the rise by it to dividend recipient wealth that is the grass roots creator of wealth divide and all the truly obscene products of this divide.

It’s not the middling millionaires at the top 1% or the booming billionaires at the top .01% that generate an operational plutarchy but the 20% just below them who have the numbers. They are in sufficient number now to displace a former middle-class America rising from an economic mobility that propelled “working class heroes” to middle class security.

We think of this 20% professional class as serving the top 1% but what best serves that top class is their money invested, interest compounding, dividends paid. What the top 20% do for plutarchy is assume the electoral, managerial and administrative positions that enable and preserve the order of things, which, right now, is a plutarchic order. If you want to insist that we still have a democracy, call it our 20% democracy.

Sanders and Warren have plans to recalibrate that meritocratic calculus for the benefit of more than the 1%. But the way to alter the calculus of meritocracy, one in which brains and ambition are evidenced in test achievement, professional school success and eventually high paying jobs, is a way that runs up against notions of work and reward, of enjoying the fruits of your labor, of using your own intellectual and imaginative gifts to find the success you seek.

Everyone doesn’t receive the same grade, not everyone can get into medical or law school, or hack the math to become an engineer or accountant or get into a Harvard MBA program or into Wharton. Even if the conditions creating equal opportunity existed, which they do not, such equality does not extend to quality of mind or mental aptitude. A case can certainly be made that aptitude is not fixed at birth but is capable of growth, depending on the quality of surrounding nurturing conditions. Thus, in a society in which the early conditions by which minds can grow are poor precisely in the way a plutarchy makes such conditions poor for the poor, the meritocratic path to success is not only not helpful but it perpetuates the functioning of plutarchy.

We are presently destroying public education not because its economic or curricula or pedagogical models are poor but because for-profit education produces the profits that public education, tax supported, cannot. Making a profit beats paying taxes, for anything, is an entrenched American meme.

It is a function of the plutarchy to open to profit every frontier possible. This is an axiom of a capitalism that restricts growth to profit. In the case of education, what has happened is that our meritocratic road to success runs through the schools the wealthy can afford and bypasses the public schools.

We are not educating for equal opportunity for success. On Tenth Avenue in NYC there is Avenues, a World School, tuition $56,400; on Ninth Avenue is the public school 33, no tuition. You should visit them and judge the equality of education offered.

Even if we could return to a public education for all, rich and poor, with no choices for the rich other than public schools, and all financial support equally divided, we still face the fact that we are equal under the law but not equal in our individual talents and aptitude. Establishing equally nurturing conditions for rich and poor does not dissolve difference. The inequality of mind is not a social choice issue; every society at every time has lived with this as a given.

How liberal or illiberal societies make use of this kind of inequality is of course pertinent, but that use does not alter its existence. Mind can be turned to dividends and algorithms, or strict obedience to the State or a Book of Faith, and so on but that usage does not eliminate the inequality of mind into which we are all born. Whether we champion meritocracy or not, minds climb to various heights and at various speeds.

How to deal with this kind of ground level inequality, which will persist regardless of how deep we are into social and identity justice and equality and how devout we are in checking our privilege, is not as soluble as the conditions within which plutarchy places us but it can be vastly improved if we eliminate the gated boundaries of plutarchy.

Meritocracy, for instance, is only a problem if the ladder to be climbed is made, serviced, and bought, and the ladder climbers are born and raised in vastly unequal environments. Public education did not deteriorate, did not become déclassé, until the initials “P.S.” became a sign of New Marketing frontier, just as all public transportation had to be unfunded and brought to ridicule and collapse for the automobile and petrol industries to profit.

Public education designed to become in Horace Mann’s words “the great equalizer of men” has fallen into the same abyss everything connected with the signifier “public” has fallen. The benefit of wealth is to consume at the highest level, to consume what the poor cannot, to, in short, perform in everything the raison d’etre and the functions of wealth. And in a disastrously wealth divided society, this kind of expression extends most tragically to education.

To solve our problems with low achievement in school, an economic movement must be made from both extremes toward the middle.

While difference in the quality of apprehension is not a social policy issue, what is a social policy and choice issue that we can tackle is an equal distribution of money for education, and the end of exploiting education as a profit-making enterprise, or as something to be shopped for at Walmart or Bergdorf’s or Dollar General.

In what way would meritocratic rise be subverted by a public education mandated for all? The equality we achieve in our educational system would not terminate individual advancement, just as a collapse of our plutarchic order would only terminate growth that is harming society and planet. Our wealth divide brought to a post-WWII level of separation would do much to remedy the maladies of our uncivil, class divided, “social medial” online neighborhoods, and our rising intolerance to difference.

This is comparable to exchanging worker owned and worker profit sharing enterprises for our shareholder/dividend recipient culture. Worker owned dissolves the kind of wealth divide that is presently obscene and increasing every year. Michael Bloomberg, who is presently using his great wealth to buy minds and votes, can’t give his money away faster than it produces yet more money. What obscene conditions generated this obscenity?

Sidebar: This is a question that all Democratic candidates to the presidency should be addressing. Trump is an obscenity that will go, one way or another, but what of the conditions that brought him to us?

Alongside both meritocracy and gentrification, as illiberal by products of our Grand Canyon wealth gap, we can place the euphemisms of both “sharing” and “gig” economies.

You rent or “share” things like cars, homes and personal time to other individuals in a peer-to-peer fashion. I don’t know if this word “sharing” is meant to remind those who aren’t living comfortably as shareholders that they’re holding zero shares in a society built on owning shares. It could also be the word is meant to remind us that there is no sharing of money or real estate in the game of Monopoly that we’re in.

As far as the “gig” economy is concerned, it is an inevitability because technology has made it so, rather like the way our relations with Iran are heating up inevitably because of Trump’s mercurial decision to break with the Iran Nuclear deal, or the planet is heating up much more than it should as an inevitable result of President Trump’s climate policies.

The one positive with living by gigs is flexibility but who would give up the security of a steady job for this? Flexibility, like the concepts of leisure and mortality, are floating free of common understanding in the American cultural imaginary. They await implantation of meaning, minds always being true marketing frontiers.

On the negative side we have the unpredictability of getting enough gigs to put food on the table, the lack of benefits such as health care, no paid personal leave or overtime, and the inability to change working conditions through unionization.

Gig and share economies are fueling a rising precariat, a class loaded down with insecurities and anxieties pushing a steady state of depression, a kind of cultural border line disorder that comes brand new to the cultural stage, previously personal states of pathology remained on a personal stage.

Would we have this new precariat class if an economic well being hadn’t been sucked from the bottom to the top and that ravaging not made possible by capital knocking labor out of the ring?

To whose benefit but the owners of the means of production is the collapse of full time, fully benefited workers, the unions that support them, and the implanted notion that work can be replaced by leisure without fatal consequences to a society built on work and consumption?

Andrew Yang proposes giving a thousand dollars a month to the precariat, a technocrat’s solution to a rising workforce without work and no means to consume. We do not need slave labor because technology, robotics and AI are making such need obsolete. But we do need to enslave minds so that the class divisions Aldous Huxley so perspicaciously envisioned can settle calmly into their allotted domains. We can see the road to that in our relatively sudden opioid epidemic, any personal path to escape the angst of societal extinction.

Plutarchy nurtures all of this. A dark nurturing indeed.

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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