Plutocracy in America: A term for our times

Recently I wrote about Bertram Gross’s Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (1982), a remarkably prescient book in which the author — a social scientist and veteran of two presidential administrations — warned about “a slow and powerful drift toward greater concentration of power and wealth in a repressive Big Business-Big Government partnership” (link to blog post here).

I was hesitant, however, to use the obvious term that captures what our society has become, fearful of sounding like I was leading a seminar on political economy. But I realize that we should use the label. Dictionary.com defines plutocracy in three ways:

1. the rule or power of wealth or of the wealthy.

2. a government or state in which the wealthy class rules.

3. a class or group ruling, or exercising power or influence, by virtue of its wealth.

I’ve noticed the term popping up much more frequently of late. Two examples:

Bill Moyers in The Progressive

I’ve never thought of Bill Moyers as being a fire-breathing radical.  Oh sure, his politics are solidly liberal, but those beliefs have been strongly shaped by his religious faith, and he always has been on the side of civil public discourse.

Nonetheless, in the February issue of The Progressive, Moyers states his case clearly and unambiguously: American is becoming a country ruled by the super rich. Here’s a snippet from his essay (link to excerpt, here):

Let that sink in: For millions of garden-variety Americans, the audacity of hope has been replaced by a paucity of hope.

Plutocracy and democracy don’t mix. Plutocracy too long tolerated leaves democracy on the auction block, subject to the highest bidder.

Socrates said to understand a thing, you must first name it. The name for what’s happening to our political system is corruption: a deep, systemic corruption.

Kevin Drum in Mother Jones

Kevin Drum, in a cover story for Mother Jones magazine (link here), points to two factors in our political system that are fueling an American plutocracy.

First, “(i)ncome inequality has grown dramatically since the mid-’70s—far more in the US than in most advanced countries—and the gap is only partly related to college grads outperforming high-school grads.

Second, “American politicians don’t care much about voters with moderate incomes. Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels studied the voting behavior of US senators in the early ’90s and discovered that they respond far more to the desires of high-income groups than to anyone else.”

More on Wisconsin

The situation in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker continues his attempt to strip most public workers of collective bargaining rights, is a prime example of the story behind a story.

On the surface, this may appear to be yet another contentious battle between labor and management in the midst of tough economic times. In reality, it is an attempt to deny workers a collective voice and to advance the interests of the Koch Brothers, the billionaire industrialists who bankroll Gov. Walker and other hard right conservatives.

Work in America…and elsewhere

All of this carries grave implications for our workplaces, jobs, and economic and political well-being, ranging from the individual and collective voices we have at work, to the division and distribution of wealth in our society, to access and participation in our political system.

It also has serious repercussions for our neighbors around the world, as American-style anti-worker practices are being exported to other countries. These include the most exploitative aspects of corporate globalization and virulent labor opposition tactics that have proven so successful in the U.S.

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