Life in an unequal, plutocratic society

We are living in an unequal, plutocratic society, and it is feeding an emotional dimension characterized by a dismissive lack of caring by many of the super rich and an angry, dog-eat-dog worldview for everyone else. So many of the employment policy issues I write about on this blog must be viewed against this broader, ugly canvass.

First, let’s establish the factual baseline: America’s wealth gap has reached extreme proportions. As Connie Stewart reports for the Los Angeles Times:

If you feel you’re falling behind in the income race, it’s not just your imagination. The wealth gap between the top 1% and the bottom 99% in the U.S. is as wide as it’s been in nearly 100 years, a new study finds.

For starters, between 1993 and 2012, the real incomes of the 1% grew 86.1%, while those of the 99% grew 6.6%, according to the study, based on Internal Revenue Service statistics examined by economists at UC Berkeley, the Paris School of Economics and Oxford University.

You can download the full study, led by Emmanuel Saez (UC-Berkeley), here.

Second, let’s define terms. Plutocracy, after all, is not a word used in ordinary conversation. defines plutocracy in three ways:

  • “the rule or power of wealth or of the wealthy”
  • “a government or state in which the wealthy class rules”
  • “a class or group ruling, or exercising power or influence, by virtue of its wealth”

Sound familiar?

“A petty, narcissistic, pridefully ignorant politics”

Bill Moyers has become one of the most articulate and insightful commentators on the American plutocracy. Earlier this year, he did an excellent video essay on our out-of-control wealth inequality. Go here for a preview:

The unprecedented level of economic inequality in America is undeniable. In an extended essay, Bill shares examples of the striking extremes of wealth and poverty across the country, including a video report on California’s Silicon Valley. There, Facebook, Google, and Apple are minting millionaires, while the area’s homeless — who’ve grown 20 percent in the last two years — are living in tent cities at their virtual doorsteps.

“A petty, narcissistic, pridefully ignorant politics has come to dominate and paralyze our government,” says Bill, “while millions of people keep falling through the gaping hole that has turned us into the United States of Inequality.”

The worldviews of the ultra-wealthy

One of Moyers’s associates, Joshua Holland, reports on recent studies that confirm the attitudes and status of many of the ultra-wealthy. For example:

Two studies released last week confirmed what most of us already knew: the ultra-wealthy tend to be narcissistic and have a greater sense of entitlement than the rest of us, and Congress only pays attention to their interests. Both studies are consistent with earlier research.

We’re seeing the figurative creation of gated communities everywhere in our society. Even if the physical gates are not before us, excessive disparities in wealth and power are constructing barriers that isolate the most fortunate from everyone else, psychologically, politically, and financially.

The “cult of the selfish”

How does an unequal, plutocratic society experience everyday life and community (or lack thereof)? Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers International Union, writes in a piece for In These Times that America is being overcome by “the cult of the selfish”:

A cult of the selfish relentlessly assails the value of American community. And now, the cult’s cruel campaign of civic meanness is achieving tragic victories. Just last week, for example, it succeeded in getting a bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives that would slash funding for food stamps by $40 billion . . . . Also, it secured passage of a bill in the House that would de-fund the Affordable Care Act, thus denying health care—and in some cases life itself—to millions of uninsured Americans.

Denying food to the hungry, chemo to the cancer-stricken? That is not American. . . .

It is, however, exactly what the cult of the selfish is seeking. It wants an America without community, where everyone is out for himself. Alone. Self-seeking. Self-dealing.

“American Bile”

Public policy professor and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who has just released a new documentary titled “Inequality For All” (trailer here) observes that he’s never seen the kind of civic hostility that we’re witnessing in this country today:

I’m 67 and have lived through some angry times: Joseph R. McCarthy’s witch hunts of the 1950s, the struggle for civil rights and the Vietnam protests in the 1960s, Watergate and its aftermath in the 1970s. But I don’t recall the degree of generalized bile that seems to have gripped the nation in recent years.

After considering all contributing factors to high anger quotient in today’s America, he concludes that ultimately “we need to look at the economy.”

Put simply, most people are on a downward escalator. Although jobs are slowly returning, pay is not. Most jobs created since the start of the recovery, in 2009, pay less than the jobs that were lost during the Great Recession. This means many people are working harder than ever, but still getting nowhere. They’re increasingly pessimistic about their chances of ever doing better.

As their wages and benefits shrink, though, they see corporate executives and Wall Street bankers doing far better than ever before. And they are keenly aware of bailouts and special subsidies for agribusinesses, pharma, oil and gas, military contractors, finance and every other well-connected industry.

The shutdown: “Workplace Bullying Gone Wild”

Cindy Waitt, director of the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention and an important supporter of the Workplace Bullying Institute, writes for the Huffington Post that the current government shutdown is the result of classic workplace bullying tactics:

. . . Some of the members of  the 113th Congress are acting probably more irrationally than any we’ve seen in decades. But, from what I see and what I’ve learned over the years, I’d say they aren’t acting just like “nutcases,” they’re acting like what they are…workplace bullies.

. . . We currently face a government shutdown and the tactics being used by the “shutdown” gang are textbook bully tactics.

Community vs. confrontation

It adds up to an ugly, angry, confrontational culture, with the have-nots and the have-less being turned against each other. We can understand these dynamics, take on these huge disparities, and create a kinder, more just world, or we can increasingly be at each other’s throats. We have choices.

9 responses

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful article, David.

    My concern is that no progress will be made if the issues are presented within a framework of blame and labeling. Because such approaches incite defensiveness, they only perpetuate a cycle of destructive conflict.

    Martin Luther King, Jr. did not create civil change by pointing fingers and laying blame. Instead, he had the courage to be vulnerable; to speak the truth about the emotional significance of human dignity.

    As part of the 99%, I’m not happy with what I see happening all around me. The challenge is how to constructively approach this enormous cultural gap without creating the risk of expanding it.

    Take care.

    • Debra, I hope the super-rich will be open to creating a fairer society, but so far most of them have poured money and effort into ensuring that the societal superstructure is rigged even more to their advantage. At present, all they have to do is expand their reading beyond the Wall Street Journal to learn the stories of people who have laid bare their vulnerability in ways that are profoundly human and not driven by political ideology, but it doesn’t appear that they are listening. The raw stories are all around us.

      Indeed, it’s fair to ask if Martin Luther King would get the same reception today from the mainstream media and, especially, from the far right and Fox News as he did in the early 60s. Can we imagine the posted comments the “I Have A Dream” speech would get on the Internet? Some of these folks would ridicule Jesus Christ as a communist or socialist if he reappeared on earth today.

      In terms of politics, I guess I’m a little more cynical on the point of whether one can constructively engage individuals whose sole agenda in January 2009 was to ensure the defeat of Obama in 2012 (well known fact coming out of a GOP leadership conference around the Inauguration) and who are using historically extraordinary, almost unheard-of measures to block the expansion of health care coverage. The President himself made the huge mistake of believing that he could reason with the GOP, and they ate his lunch in return.

      While I agree that mindless name-calling isn’t very useful, we’re still at the point where so many don’t even understand what has happened and how virulently deliberate the creation of this wealth gap has been. Understanding that dynamic is a matter of learning and comprehending, not demonizing and labeling.

      • I totally agree with you – the dynamic is definitely a matter of learning and understanding. When I’m angry, my capacity for this dynamic sometimes flies out the window. 🙂

        Greed is rooted in fear. From my little perspective of the world and conflict, we need to understand what the fear is about. Like you, I don’t feel we’ve even scratched the surface of this understanding. It may not be time.

        The question for the ages: How do we manage our anger so we can constructively gain the knowledge to better understand the underlying fear that cultivates this cultural gap?

        Although I was only 5 at the time Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, it seems to me the reaction was not all positive. Jesus did not have the “rich and powerful” on his side either. Had there been the kind of anonymous forums to voice opinions we have today, I can only imagine what the comments might have been.

        We’re caught in the spiraling winds of a tornado. If we can find a path to the calm at the eye of the storm, we may be able to regain some semblance of balance. Yet (as you know much better than I do), some storms just need to wear themselves out – and then we’re left with the work of cleaning up.

        Thanks again, David.

      • I agree that the hate spin of today’s online world would’ve been quite virulent during the early 60s as well. That’s the very difference that makes modern communication so toxic. It’s very similar to what you and I have seen with bullying behaviors — the online versions ratchet everything up a notch.

        Another huge difference is the polarization between/within the two parties. When the Civil Rights Act was enacted into law, a lot of Democrats and a small chunk of Republicans voted for it, while some members of both parties opposed it. Today, that vote would be mostly straight down party lines. In addition, the same kind of zealous troll mentality that has infected the Internet manifests itself in a small number of Reps and Senators who insist on having it their way or not at all.

  2. Hegemony, perpetrated by the plutocracy is as strong as ever. It’s popular to hate unions in America, even if the haters themselves would benefit. Same with raising the minimum wage…the loudest outcries are from those who are far from affluent themselves. Their reasoning is they had to work their way up to earn the paltry wage, so should everyone coming in behind them.

    And we see this with workplace bullying as well. Management is always right and the employee must be doing something wrong to incur the bullying. The target’s co-workers rally to the side of management and some will actively take up the cause to drive out the target. The irony is, at least where I used to work, is the people who thought they were untouchable eventually became targets themselves. Many still don’t get it though. It’s each person for themselves and they can’t see the big picture.

  3. Debra, greed can be rooted in fear but I don’t believe behavior by the greedy is so simple as to be caused by one explanation. Greed by the wealthy is rooted in power and the corruption that power can foster. Power that feels like ‘drunk in love’ and is not risk-aversive because it makes the powerful feel insulated from any negative consequences, is dangerous and particularly so if the powerful are narcissistic and without values… wealthy leadership without wisdom and compassion.

    Defining the behavior we wish to be, and see in our country, and consensus of the majority (the 99 %), about the values and truths we hold to be self-evident,- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, – are ours to take back and maybe restate in contemporary language and need.

    It doesn’t take money to fight money and power, it takes consensus from a majority about the beliefs we hold about human rights. This has become a human rights issue in the US.

    • Janice, you articulated my beliefs beautifully. I think your argument about the explanation of fear as too simple is spot on. Robert Reich discusses the “almost Golden Age” in his book Supercapitalism. The “almost Golden Age” occurred in this country after World War II through about 1975. It was during this period that the public good was seen as a very important goal in this country. We need to try to bring that concern for the public good back to the forefront of government’s agenda. As you state, “it doesn’t take money to fight money and power, it takes a consensus from a majority about the beliefs we hold about human rights”.


  4. This topic is such a charged one, it really is. I recall about thirty years ago, I was watching CNN and listening to a panel of economists discussing the problems of the day.

    The topic of plutocracy arose, and one of the economists’ responses stuck with me. Essentially he said, “This country is ruled by a plutocracy. The public simply hasn’t awakened to this reality yet.”

    When I was studying with one of my sociology professors-who was my academic mentor-we read about the ruling elite. There is a book called: “The Ruling Elite”. I do not remember the authors’ names. I do have the book somewhere. I would have to find it. In the book it talks about how ‘trickle down’ politics has actually resulted in ‘trickle up’ politics, resulting in a massive accumulation of wealth to the upper one percent in the U.S.

    Another book we were recommended to read, I have yet to get through is called, “Foundations: Their Power and Influence” by Rene Wormser. “Ms. Wormser was the counsel for a congressional committee commissioned to investigate the great tax-exempt foundations. Despite opposition from the media and the financial elite, the committee discovered that the Rockefeller, Ford, and Carnegie Foundations were working in education, government, and the media to convert our country into a socialist nation. This book documents the power of the Tax-Exempt foundations and how they used that power to subvert a nation.”

    A common focus with this professor included the World Bank (World Bank Group), The Trilateral Commission (founded by David Rockefeller in 1973), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a triad of concentrated power that is designed to support the implementation of the New World Order, which will govern the globe overseen by a small ruling elite (plutocracy).

    The Trilateral Commission comprises approximately 400 members, 78 (approximately) of which represent the U.S.

    Also, another concept we studied is the agenda of reducing the First World countries to Second World level and increasing the Third World countries to Second World level, with a small ruling elite governing the masses under one government.

    Controlling the distribution and cost of goods and services is one of the primary ways in which to control the masses. People, more and more, are so urgently focused on putting bread on the table, so to speak, that it is difficult to focus on understanding the agenda behind the scenes.

    The fact that we have virtually lost protections in the employment sector via the ‘at-will’ clause demonstrates how powerless the average U.S. citizen is over one’s destiny and dignity. Toxic personalities are clueless to what they are buying into when they assert themselves as being petty and sadistic tyrants, fooling themselves into thinking that they have garnered some sense of ‘real’ power.

    The government shut-down is, also, suspect, if you ask me. If we go into default, who are we in default to? I bet with some research, we might find that the World Bank owns the company store (the U.S. monetary system). I think it would be safe to say that it isn’t be accident, rather by design.

    Excellent articles, Dave, excellent topics, troubling times, to say the least.

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