Amid the economic and personal struggles confronting people as they deal with forces that sometimes appear beyond their ability to manage or control, I find myself thinking a lot about the abuse of power and authority in our society. Recently these ruminations were triggered by an old book and two January magazine cover stories:
Bertram Gross, Friendly Fascism
Fascism is such an overused word in our tear-down political discourse that I’m instantly suspect of any book that uses it in the title. But Bertram Gross’s Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (1982), is becoming one of the most remarkably prescient books I’ve ever encountered about politics and society.
Gross was a social science professor and public servant who served in two presidential administrations. In Friendly Fascism, he warned of two conflicting trends in American society, as he set out in the preface to his 1982 edition:
The first is a slow and powerful drift toward greater concentration of power and wealth in a repressive Big Business-Big Government partnership. . . . The phrase “friendly fascism” helps distinguish this possible future from the patently vicious corporatism of classic fascism in the past of Germany, Italy and Japan.
…The other is a slower and less powerful tendency for individuals and groups to seek greater participation in decisions affecting themselves and others. . . . It is embodied in larger values of community, sharing, cooperation, service to others and basic morality as contrasted with crass materialism and dog-eat-dog competition.
Gross went on to identify the types of people who are consolidating power in America:
I see at present members of the Establishment or people on its fringes who, in the name of Americanism, betray the interests of most Americans by fomenting militarism, applauding rat-race individualism, protecting undeserved privilege, or stirring up nationalistic and ethnic hatreds.
From the magazine stand
Fast forward to modern day. Here are two magazine cover headlines. First, from the Jan.-Feb. issue cover of the Atlantic (article link here):
The Rise of the New Ruling Class — How the Global Elite is Leaving You Behind
From a January cover of the Economist (article link here):
The rich and the rest — A 14-page special report on the global elite
What’s going on here? The moderate-to-liberal Atlantic and the free-market Economist on the same page? Well, not quite.
Rise of the plutocracy
Chrystia Freeland’s article in the Atlantic is more along the lines of what concerns me. Freeland tells us that as a business journalist, she’s “spent the better part of the past decade shadowing the new super-rich: attending the same exclusive conferences in Europe; conducting interviews over cappuccinos on Martha’s Vineyard or in Silicon Valley meeting rooms; observing high-powered dinner parties in Manhattan.”
Based on these observations and events surrounding the economic meltdown, she acknowledges the “wider—and not unreasonable—fears that we are living in not merely a plutonomy, but a plutocracy, in which the rich display outsize political influence, narrowly self-interested motives, and a casual indifference to anyone outside their own rarefied economic bubble.” Her lengthy analysis concludes:
The lesson of history is that, in the long run, super-elites have two ways to survive: by suppressing dissent or by sharing their wealth. It is obvious which of these would be the better outcome for America, and the world. Let us hope the plutocrats aren’t already too isolated to recognize this.
But we’re in good hands, right?
By contrast, the Economist‘s take on elites and their power is not so alarmed, suggesting that with appropriate tweaks, things should be fine:
All these curbs require continual refinement: greater transparency in government, vigorous enforcement of antitrust rules, efforts to make justice swift and fair. Yet by and large in liberal democracies the powerful get on by pleasing others. In short, they work for us.
From 1980 onward
My generally liberal politics aside, I often enjoy the Economist‘s sensible, understated prose. But on this I believe they are dead wrong. Since 1980 (at least), buoyed by the election of Ronald Reagan and the policies that came in on his coattails, we have been witnessing a concentration of wealth and power that puts an exclamation mark on what Bertram Gross was writing about as this era was unfolding.
Another way it trickles down, jackboot style
The abuse of wealth and power can manifest itself at the micro level as well. Labor journalist James Parks, in a piece posted to Today’s Workplace blog (link here), reports on a study showing a correlation between excessive CEO pay and poor treatment of workers:
The study examined the corporate behavior of 261 companies and found a close correlation between pay inequality and poor treatment of workers. In companies where CEOs made much more than their average workers, the companies were more likely to underfund pensions or cut corners on health and safety. Often, according to the study, the bosses engaged in a cost-benefit analysis, calculating that a fine would be a cost of doing business, compared with the profits they could make.
Docility, apathy, acceptance
Gross predicted that the rise of friendly fascism would create a politically docile and apathetic American public that largely accepts the economic and power inequities of the status quo, while getting caught up in a culture that embraces petty conflict and superficiality.
Of course, it’s wholly unfair to label an entire populace as being this or that. But if you think we’re in good shape, check out an episode of the “Jerry Springer Show” or “Judge Judy,” watch Donald Trump telling a reality TV underling that he’s fired, listen to a few rap songs, and then log onto the Internet news coverage to read about the latest troubles of Lindsay Lohan.
For now, at least, I rest my case.