“To study the economic structure of this country, to know which hands control the wealth, and to which end, seems an academic exercise–and yet it is necessary, all of it is necessary, for discipline, for knowledge, and for power.”
– James Baldwin
The paradigm in the title is described with Swiftian clarity by Marilynne Robinson:
“This view of things [‘in any new occasion to seek advantage’] is radically individualistic, indifferent to any narrative of identity or purpose. It takes a cynical view of people as such, since no one’s true motives are different from those of the consciously selfish. Because there is only one motive — to realize a maximum of benefit at a minimum of cost — those who do not flourish are losers in an invidious, Darwinian sense. Winners are exempt from moral or ethical scrutiny since advance of any sort is the good to be valued. ‘Progress’ is likewise exempt from the kind of scrutiny that would raise questions about the real value this process generates, reckoned against other value that is precluded rf destroyed.”
(“What Kind of Country Do We Want?” NYRB, June 11, 2020)
Our imagined community is one in which money matters more than anything else, including people. That’s always been the case in the U.S., but the statement wasn’t made so boldly until Ronald Reagan tied the purpose of government to championing the rich. We could now form a more perfect union by making the paths of money making as perfect as they could be. The Federal government’s job was not to get in the way, not to hinder the winning competitive instincts of those who would bring home the bacon for all of us. Or, whatever trickles down.
It has not been difficult for the Have Nots to imagine themselves becoming rich and so even though the gap between these and the Haves widened to today’s obscene level, every Have Not remains on the threshold of having it all, or at least more. The persistence of the mythos of hard work. ambition and ever upward mobility a la Horatio Alger, also remains despite the fact that making more money by having money or brokering commissions in stock and bond trading or joining private hedge fund or private equity clubs seem to be more like meta-hype work and ambition more like instincts you either have or don’t. You can’t wake up in the morning and be full of instincts. Making money in the hyperreal became our post-Reagan form of work and ambition became vestigial. Billionaires, the mega rich and moguls arise from this darkened hyperreal.
We have also seen a professional meritocracy developing through an assortative mating of two professionals, made possible with the widespread professional education of women. This has brought a significant power group wedged between wealth and a diminished working and middle class. This meritocratic class represents a full 20% of the population, engaged in many aspects of intellectual work, agents of discourse, models of gentrified practices, and supporters of institutions that preserve their privileged meritocracy.
It doesn’t matter what the wealth gap between this class and the top 1% may be because that gap does not challenge or offend the meritocratic class. They are, in effect, servants of not only the billionaire class but supporters of the economics that has created such an incomprehensible level of possession.
Our political party duopoly of Democrats and Republicans are equally acceptable homes to the meritocracy, though the expendable income of two married/partnered professionals winds up in the hands of Wall Street wealth managers. Thus, a definite leaning toward preserving investments seems understandable, perhaps explaining why Obama, an exemplary meritocratic success, preferred to bail out the banks and not the foreclosed.
Besides buffering a clash between the dysphoria of the poor and the indulgences of the rich, the meritocratic class has hindered a much-needed redistribution from the top down that is required to solve problems causing the wealth gap. The idea of a legislative redistribution runs counter to the model of meritocratic, professional advancement. Success has to be earned, although how one is positioned, family and genetic wise as well as what the context for opportunity may be, complicates notions of personally designed achievement and reward. A strong dislike of undeserved reward as well as a deep respect for fair play competition, always fair in the eyes of the winners, permeates both liberal and neoliberal mindsets of the meritocratic professional class.
Even though we have an imaginary that testifies to a growing cultural diversity, a strong drive toward equitable inclusiveness and a flattening of all hierarchies, what we have is a hierarchical arrangement both rigid and hermetic. We have solid mogul and meritocratic class domains.
Between mega wealth and power, itself hidden beyond view, unreachable because unknowable from a “lower depth,” we have a meritocratic, gentrified presence with unequitable access in the place of a former potentially mobile middle class. Below both, we have those left outside the play of our all determining economic system.
The imaginary of equitable distribution of everything, from money to justice runs head on into our present hierarchical arrangement, one that solidifies class as totally, though differently, than at any time in history, and is as exclusionary as any prior hierarchy. Because both domains of success achieved depend upon the presence of failure to achieve, failure to live on the return of money invested or on the emoluments resulting from meritocratic domination, the immiserated and the processes of immiseration are treated as acceptable cost.
That is the underlying logic in play, the paradigm we need to defund/eliminate, although both mogul and meritocratic classes find it in their interests to encourage an imaginary of equitable allotment of liberty and justice for all.
This is the metanarrative of existing economics, rampant since Reagan. Workers don’t matter, bought at the lowest wage here, there or anywhere, increasingly diminished in cost analysis by robotics and AI.
However, from the politics side, voters matter.
Politics in an electoral democracy cannot hyperreal election returns, although that law of physics may be overturned in the 2020 Presidential election. Trump has had great success in turning the real into the simulacra of the hyperreal where all words and actions float free of determinate meaning. Even so, though workers have no leverage in the play of financialized capitalism, voters do. The problem a restrictive hierarchy faces is one in which an always winning majority of voters is not in the ranks of mogul or meritocracy but with the remaining 80% of the population.
The seemingly impossible goal the top 20% face then is to turn enough of that 80% toward the interests of mogul and meritocracy to win elections.
This campaign cannot be waged reasonably simply because the economics of immiserating the many while aggrandizing the few is a very biased reasoning, off putting as the Brits say, a perverted reasoning calling for the sacrificing of the many for the sake of the few.
The campaign then must be waged not via reason but passions, not the romantic kind but the dark devils easily fired up in our natures: hatred and fear topping the list. And in the oldest basement of the American cultural imaginary lies racism, fear of the blacks who were once enslaved as creatures without minds or souls.
“Hate is the consequence of fear,” the great English stylist, Cyril Connolly writes, “we fear something before we hate it; a child who fears noises grows up to be a man who hates noises.” The burden of guilt when it comes to black African slavery in the American past is clearly too overwhelming to be absolved. We live in fear of reprisal, perhaps all of it fitting a Christian conscience of forgiveness we cannot give ourselves nor can we believe it will be given to us. That primordial fear in an American imaginary which boasts its fearlessness, first in bravery and boldness in all history, festers into hate.
It is that fear and hatred that Republicans have seized upon to invade the many who, if the economics of domination were clear to all, they have no access. What then has evolved in this American imaginary is a feared and hated minority of blacks who have since enslavement been shaped to fulfill the perverse needs of the dominating to justify their domination. Poverty degrades while racism nurtures that degradation. It’s a double blow that American blacks have suffered since slavery days. It obliges a politics that needs to instill hateful passions in order to attract voters to an economics that is busy destroying them.
The presidency of Donald J. Trump has openly played on all the worst devils of our nature, it being his nature to arrogantly broadcast his own vileness as a sign of his strong man illusions.
He’s not selective in who he chooses to hate but rather is a kind of equal opportunity, all sizes fit as needed Mephistopheles. Latinx and Muslims as the need arises, while former President Obama serves as a person to hate through which, in synecdoche fashion, all blacks are hated. He does not tweet against workers impoverished by a dominating economics of cost/benefit, confining his attack to calling them Losers, nor has he, until the George Floyd murder, tied black protest to a collapse in Law & Order. Law & Order not only pulls in the global capitalist who needs Law & Order to guarantee profit exploits everywhere, but it also attracts the meritocratic gentry whose lifestyles are built on a guarantee that their ownership will not be looted, their artisanal lifestyles not sullied. Trump’s idea of L & O protects their own invasion from counterattack.
What George Floyd’s murder has done is make the racist card difficult for Trump to play because an increasing number of Americans see justified cause in the recent protest. They are beginning to see though the eyes of black victims, which means, Trump strategy-wise, the legitimacy of black protest must be left alone though a racist America cannot be admitted as the problem.
What we have then as our president’s response is the threat to Law & Order and that threat instigated by Antifa, Obamagate conspirators, wild, Leftist Democrats, Crazy Nancy, Biden and his son, Hillary, and a septuagenarian wily, Antifa provocateur. In short, any of the villains the President has on his list, something of a Mad Bomber paranoiac with a hit list but no manifesto, only a barrage of tweets.
At this moment when the old standard racist attacks cannot safely be made, a counterattack needs to be launched. Getting black lives out of the bottom rungs of a “national prosperity,” which is represented as such by the prosperous who measure growth within the sole cult of cost-benefit to themselves, should be the primary goal.
Profits not people. Black lives don’t matter as much as money matters. Expand that: impoverished lives don’t matter as much as money matters. Defunding and thus eliminating police departments is like trimming poison ivy and leaving the roots. The police are the myrmidons of the power structure. Change that structure and they change.
Billionaires should be defunded/eliminated for they are the plants a poisonous economic system puts forth. An economics that creates such obscenity at the very top as well as at the bottom where money arrives only through salaries and salaries are held at cost/benefit levels to those at the top should be defunded/eliminated.
Dave Denison in “An Open Letter to Leon Cooperman” asks the hedge fund billionaire: “You are said to have a net worth of $3.3 billion. Why should any one person ever be allowed to control that much wealth? Most Americans would consider it absurd, if asked to think about it, that someone can ‘earn’ that much money.” (The Baffler, March/April #50) Denison goes on to cite Joseph Stiglitz’s pointing out the outrageous ratio between CEO and worker salaries, yet another domain to defund/eliminate. (The Price of Inequality) Banks too big to fail should be defunded/eliminated, along with hedge funds, private equity Ponzi schemes, brokerage/banks.
Defund/eliminate/break up Big Pharma, the Leviathan Amazon, the enslavement camp of Walmart, the amoral, techno idiocy of Facebook and Twitter, the food franchises of ill health, defund/eliminate privatization of all that corrupts the common good and the public welfare. Eat as much of the rich as needed to end their corruption of the public good in the name of private profit. Eat enough of the rich to turn wealth disparities into a powerless wash. Put the taxes that a community pays toward the advance of that community and not a global cabala of shell companies. Create a protective and serving police by defunding/eliminating the economics that destroys one community and sanctifies another, a politics that dehumanizes and debases the poor because that economics grants them no political power.
You see that to do this you must change the economic paradigm totally. You must defund the paradigm currently operating. Anything less perpetuates the divisions that such a paradigm has created, the politics that institutionalizes it and the practices that instrumentalize it.
Among much that the Trump regime has shown us are the dangers of presidential power and the poor defenses of our Congressional check upon that power.
But it has also shown us that what is rotten at the top, rots the entire nation, not Denmark here but the U.S. While racism has remained the only cudgel of power an increasingly powerless white working and middle class believe they have to wield, a long term state of affairs, this Trump presidency is the first to sponsor a dehumanizing approach to “Losers,” to those who have no worth within a cult that measures worth in dollars. This president openly and boldly promotes the valuation of the cost/benefit paradigm as the totalizing valuation of human life.
Keeping Trump from a second term is vital if we wish to return to our democracy’s attempt to value human life beyond profit, which comes down to the lives of the immiserated and powerless, a place where we find blacks who have the highest poverty rate. Consistently. Persistently.
A pressing need then arises to defund/eliminate the Electoral College, which now allows all those states whose citizens do not know and do not live among black lives power to control their lives.
One of the reasons Republicans have succeeded against all odds in bringing our elections to disputed finishes (how does 20% facing 80% result in tight finishes?) is that the politics of persons they pursue fits a long existing politics of personalities in the American cultural imaginary.
Trump hasn’t won a popular vote and he’s not likely to win it in 2020, but the politics of personality and personal attack, of the power of opinion, of personal everything, including government has kept a solid following behind Trump. He has personalized/privatized the office of the Presidency, and it suits the American temperament. Facebook is a roll of faces, of persons, not ideas. Twitter is a toilet of personal lunacy. These, our most invasive media, nurture the spread of personality, like a virus.
Economics, that science still dismal but now obfuscated, deliberately arcane, has held off certainly a populist inspection. You can’t tweet the paradigm we need to defund. The very nature of populism is to look not through a glass darkly but through the one most conveniently transparent. Trump answers this need.
Going after the minions of mogul and meritocratic power, like the police, is a politics of personality play. Unless the yoke of this power regime is broken, defunded in its own terminology, 20% of the population will continue to dominate while 80% devolves into Hobbes’ nasty, brutish and short lives.
The irrationalism of racism may or may not survive a re-distribution of wealth, a re-distribution FDR accomplished without becoming Stalin, but it will be so much more difficult to feed when the divisions of wealth cease to be the engine driving our behavior.
George Floyd’s murder and the worldwide reaction to it shows us that at this moment in this country, the lives of blacks have been chosen by our economics and the politics which serve it to be the pivotal site of a defunding/eliminating of the dehumanizing paradigm in sway..