Sunday, March 30, 2014

Thomas Frank — Plutocracy without end: Why the 1 percent always defeats the middle class

I’ve been writing about what we politely call “inequality” since the mid-1990s, but one day about ten years ago, when I was traveling the country lecturing about the toxic curlicues of right-wing culture, it dawned on me that maybe I had been getting the entire story wrong. All the economic developments that I spent my days bemoaning—the obscene enrichment of the CEO class, the assault on the regulatory state, the ruination of average people—were very possibly not what I thought they were. When I talked about these things, I assumed they were an outrage, an affront to the affluent nation I still believed we were; once the scales fell from our eyes and Americans figured out what was happening, I argued, we would yell “stop,” bring this age of folly to a close, and get back to middle-class prosperity as usual.
What hit me that day was the possibility that my happy, postwar middle-class world was the exception, and that the plutocracy we were gradually becoming was the norm. Maybe what was happening to us was a colossal reversion to a pre-Rooseveltian mean, and all the trappings of ordinary life that had seemed so solid and so permanent when I was young—the vast suburbs and the anchorman’s reassuring baritone and the nice appliances that filled the houses of the working class—were aberrations made possible by an unusual balance of political forces maintained only by the enormous political efforts of its beneficiaries.
Maybe the gravity of history pulled in the exact opposite direction of what I had always believed. If so, the question was not, “When will we get back to the right order of things,” but rather, “Would we ever stop falling?”
Frank's epiphany is the subject of Piketty's study, which confirms it, as if it needed confirmation. Anyone with any sense of history can see that the post-war prosperity was a blip on the screen.

I recall predicting this was going to happen in spades once the Berlin wall came down and the USSR dissolved, "proving the superiority of capitalism," and removing the need of the elite to co-opt the rest of the population in order to forestall the rise of socialism in the West. Once that possibility receded, the full force of elite accumulation was again launched by those in power. It doesn't matter what the basis of the power is, raw force, feudalism, or capitalism. The tendency of power is to aggregate and exclude by establishing privilege.

Salon
Plutocracy without end: Why the 1 percent always defeats the middle class
Thomas Frank

3 comments:

The Arthurian said...

"It doesn't matter what the basis of the power is, raw force, feudalism, or capitalism. The tendency of power is to aggregate and exclude by establishing privilege."

Nice! And from The Road to Serfdom: ... it is not the source but the limitation of power which prevents it from being arbitrary.

David said...

I’ve been writing about what we politely call “inequality” since the mid-1990s, but one day about ten years ago, when I was traveling the country lecturing about the toxic curlicues of right-wing culture, it dawned on me that maybe I had been getting the entire story wrong

I remember when there was a lot of heady talk about "change" on lefty blogs and liberal talk radio (remember that?) and how I got sort of caught up into it. The "What's the Matter with Kansas" theory of politics was the backbone of the whole thing. If we could just get non-rich white guys to stop "voting against their own best interests" we would start electing "more and better Democrats" and everything would be groovy.

I knew this was too simplistic but the idea was very seductive. Then I would be reminded of things old lefties like Chomsky or Cockburn always said or a book like "Shock Doctrine" would appear and I would see the anomaly was in believing that getting people to change how they vote would change anything in the deep structure of American politics. Then came Obama. I fully expected to be disappointed by him, but wanted to believe that, having hit rock bottom with Bush, we could only go up from there. Now I don't really consider parties and votes I just try to imagine the worst possible outcome on any particular issue and assume that is what the politicians will produce. Since taking this approach I've rarely been far wrong.

Dan Kervick said...

The progress that was made during the New Deal era and beyond was prepared by nearly a century of growing working class movements growing out of the socialist tradition.