Bully Nation: How economic power and inequality are fueling a bullying culture

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Bully Nation: How the American Establishment Creates a Bullying Society (2016) by sociologists Charles Derber (Boston College) and Yale R. Magrass (UMass-Dartmouth) takes a “big picture” look at how the economic Powers That Be have fueled a deeper, broader culture of bullying behaviors. Here’s part of an excerpt published on AlterNet

Any economic or social system based on power inequality creates potential or latent bullying that often translates into active bullying, by institutions and individuals. So this is not a problem exclusive to capitalism; bullying was brutally manifest in systems claiming to be socialist or communist, such as the Soviet Union, and it is also obviously a major problem in China today. But capitalism is the dominant system currently and has its own, less recognized, institutionalized bullying propensities.

This looks like a promising book. Unfortunately, however, Drs. Derber and Magrass also take an unmerited swipe at the anti-bullying movement, by suggesting that we have failed to link bullying to the broader economic and political forces that frame their analysis:

Though the bullying of vulnerable kids in schools gets a lot of attention, the bullying of vulnerable workers usually is ignored. If the mass media mention it at all, they typically parrot the corporate view that the agitating workers are troublemakers who deserve punishment. The failure of scholars in the “bullying field” to see even illegal (not to mention legal) corporate threats, intimidation, and retaliation as bullying is another profound failure of the psychological paradigm that views bullying only as a “kid thing” in schools. Such scholars are blind to the adult and institutionalized bullying that is endemic to our economic system.

It appears that the co-authors neglected to do the necessary homework to learn more about the workplace anti-bullying movement. Indeed, the ongoing campaign to enact legal protections against workplace bullying has its philosophical roots in the value of employee dignity. In the law review article that led to my drafting of the Healthy Workplace Bill, “The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection” (Georgetown Law Journal, 2000), I explore the social and economic conditions that are fueling bullying at work.

In addition, I connect the dots between the state of workers’ rights, employee dignity, and economic power in my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law” (University of Richmond Law Review, 2009). My 2014 blog post drawing from that piece stated:

American employment law has been dominated by a belief system that embraces the idea of unfettered free markets and regards limitations on management authority with deep suspicion. Under this “markets and management” framework, the needs for unions and collective bargaining, individual employment rights, and, most recently, protection of workers amid the dynamics of globalization, are all weighed against these prevailing norms.

Furthermore, we know darn well about the plutocratic forces that want to keep workplace bullying legal. Here in Massachusetts, a powerful corporate trade group, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, has spearheaded opposition to the Healthy Workplace Bill. The Chamber of Commerce and the Society for Human Resource Management are among the other corporate friendly trade groups that have opposed employer accountability for severe workplace bullying.

This oversight aside, it appears that Bully Nation has the potential to raise our collective consciousness about how concentrated power is fueling abusive behaviors. I look forward to taking a closer look at it.

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More to come: The experience of everyday wealth differences

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A guest contributor to The Guardian‘s “What I’m really thinking” column — apparently a female student — writes about the awkwardness of making social plans with friends who have a lot more money than she does:

“I’ll meet you there,” I say. “I’ve got something to do first.” That’s a lie. I just don’t want to take an hour-long taxi with you; the fare for that is outrageous. No, better to take public transport and spend an extra hour and half to save the money.

. . . Make no mistake, I am by no means poor, but by your standards I might as well be. When we go out for dinner, I scream inside at the cost. Often I don’t eat, saying I’ve had something already or I’m not hungry. Some people ask if I’m anorexic, because they never see me eat a proper meal outside school.

Iceberg ahead…and we’re steaming into it, full throttle

Of course, the socially awkward dilemmas confronting a younger person with less disposable cash than her friends are one thing, while deep inequalities in income and wealth are quite another. At least here in the U.S., I believe those inequalities have been, and continue to be, intentionally baked into our economic and political infrastructure. And they are becoming evident across the generations.

For example, here’s a piece of writer Sarah Kendzior’s insightful take on the “post-employment economy” that confronts many recent graduates:

A lawyer. A computer scientist. A military analyst. A teacher.

What do these people have in common? They are trained professionals who cannot find full-time jobs. Since 2008, they have been tenuously employed – working one-year contracts, consulting on the side, hustling to survive. They spent thousands on undergraduate and graduate training to avoid that hustle. They eschewed dreams – journalism, art, entertainment – for safer bets, only to discover that the safest bet is that your job will be contingent and disposable.

On the other end of the generational spectrum, you have late Boomers and early Gen Xers — a cohort that just missed out on the golden era of employer-provided pensions — hurdling into middle age and beyond with scant retirement savings. For example, a 2015 study by the non-profit National Institute on Retirement Security concluded, among other things:

The average working household has virtually no retirement savings. When all households are included— not just households with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $2,500 for all working-age households and $14,500 for near-retirement households. Furthermore, 62 percent of working households age 55-64 have retirement savings less than one times their annual income, which is far below what they will need to maintain their standard of living in retirement.

My prediction? Without significant changes, we are going to see more and more instances of everyday inequality staring us straight in the face. For some, this will mean quietly bowing out of pricier social activities due to a money crunch. For others, it will mean trying to maintain appearances of “middle class” status while opting for a dinner of macaroni & cheese from a box. And these will be among the folks who actually have “choices.”

I haven’t yet said a word here about climate change.

Saving ourselves from a dystopian future

Yes, I know I’m sounding overwrought. But too many indicators are suggesting that (1) we have yet to pay the full price for our inequalities and excesses, especially during the past thirty-five or so years; and (2) we have not come to a reckoning about the mess we’ve made.

For those who can afford it, there are things that can be done on an individual level: Be generous. Give to good charities. Pick up the check. Leave a nice tip. To help someone dear who is in a financial bind, give, don’t loan, and do it without fanfare. Instead, be grateful that you can afford it. (I try to hold myself to these standards, while confessing that I sometimes fall short.)

More broadly, all of us, regardless of financial status, must grasp how our economic, political, and social systems have stoked massive inequality, nationally and globally, and then help to do something about it. 

I’m not sure of all the answers, but I believe they will be a combination of changing how we live, building a more robust yet inclusive economy, and repairing our social safety net. We will have to be smarter and kinder in creating a society that places greater value on human dignity and the common good.

“Friendly Fascism”: The terrifying clairvoyance of Bertram Gross

Some three and a half decades ago, social science professor and former senior public official Bertram Gross authored a remarkably prescient book about politics and society in the U.S.: Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America. First published in 1980, with a revised edition issued in 1982, Friendly Fascism eerily anticipated the descent of America into a state of plutocracy — an increasingly authoritarian society run by the wealthy and powerful for their own benefit.

A defining fork in the road

In the preface to his 1982 edition, Gross identified two conflicting trends in American society:

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 a group of people who were 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.

Not-so-friendly fascism?

Unfortunately, it appears that the second societal vision identified by Gross — one of community, sharing, cooperation, service, and morality — has been overcome by massive concentrations of power and wealth.

We have no clearer evidence of this than the real possibility that Donald Trump will be the Republican Party standard bearer in the fall election. At the time Gross penned his book, Trump was a young, arrogant, and obnoxious (e.g., here and here) New York businessman primarily interested in money and self-promotion. However, I doubt that even Gross could’ve guessed that the Trump of today would be an exemplar of “fomenting militarism, applauding rat-race individualism, protecting undeserved privilege, or stirring up nationalistic and ethnic hatreds.”

Indeed, we are now at a point where “friendly” fascism is being supplanted by a much more aggressive, violent brand, reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s. Folks, this is not politics as usual. If Trump wins the GOP nomination and goes on to win the Presidency, then America will have chosen a dangerous, hateful path. Recently The Economist, long a voice of solid conservatism, put it well in expressing its alarm over the possibility of a Trump Presidency:

That is an appalling prospect. The things Mr Trump has said in this campaign make him unworthy of leading one of the world’s great political parties, let alone America. One way to judge politicians is by whether they appeal to our better natures: Mr Trump has prospered by inciting hatred and violence. He is so unpredictable that the thought of him anywhere near high office is terrifying. He must be stopped.

Republican policy analyst Peter Wehner has called out Trump on his constant appeals to political violence:

It is stunning to contemplate, particularly for those of us who are lifelong Republicans, but we now live in a time when the organizing principle that runs through the campaign of the Republican Party’s likely nominee isn’t adherence to a political philosophy — Mr. Trump has no discernible political philosophy — but an encouragement to political violence.

Even if Trump is stopped short of the White House, the ripple effects of his brand of thuggish, bullying rhetoric and behavior will have seeped into our communities, schools, workplaces, and civic life. Those of us committed to a more decent, kindhearted, and inclusive nation have our work cut out for us. After all, as Bertram Gross pointed out many years ago, we didn’t get to this terrible place overnight.

Let’s get apocalyptic

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University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen, in his thought provoking little book We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (2013), urges intellectuals to be “responsibly apocalyptic.” I’ve discussed Dr. Jensen’s book before, and I’d like to spend a little more time with it. 

A different kind of revelation

Jensen defines apocalypse not in dramatic Biblical terms, but rather in reference to “crises that concentrated wealth and power create.” He continues, saying that “(i)t is not crazy to look at the state of the world — economically, politically, culturally, and ecologically — and conclude that there are rocky times ahead.” However, rather than invoking “a reactionary theology” that predicts “the rapture to come,” the concept of “apocalyptic vision can help us understand social and ecological ruptures in the here and now” (emphasis mine).

Intellectuals in institutions

Furthermore, Jensen observes that many intellectuals associated with institutions — “universities, think tanks, government, corporations” — go along with prevailing norms because they either believe in them or don’t want to get in trouble. Instead, he urges intellectuals to be “responsibly apocalyptic” and “to challenge the pre-ordained conclusions that the powerful prefer.” If intellectuals do not confront these norms, then the powerful need not worry about being accountable for their actions.

Responsibility

I referenced Dr. Jensen’s work in a blog piece in 2013, “The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need,” written in conjunction with my participation in the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health.” In that post, I invoked “responsibly bold” as my catchphrase for how scholars and intellectual activists should conduct themselves.

I agree with Jensen that we are living in an era marked by extreme inequalities of wealth and power distribution. These inequalities surely relate to a market-based economy run amok. In addition, they implicate power grabs in many societal settings that may transcend political labels — unless, of course, “thuggishness” counts as an ideology.

I have witnessed these dynamics in the workplace issues I study, research, write, and advocate about on a regular basis.

For example, workplace bullying is directly linked to organizational leadership and abuses of power. Though perpetrated by individuals, work abuse cannot flourish without buy-in and endorsement from the top.

Also, the widespread practice of unpaid internships, especially in the private sector, exploits labor under the guise of gaining “experience” and “credentials.” It also excludes those who cannot afford to work without pay.

Topics that haven’t been focal points for my scholarship, but that have appeared regularly on this blog, include exorbitant student loan debt, long-term unemployment for older and younger workers alike, and America’s burgeoning retirement funding crisis. In the U.S. alone, these are all symptomatic of a broken economic structure and social safety net.

Those of us who engage the world of public ideas have a change-making opportunity to be responsibly bold. We should put forth sound analyses, interpretations, and recommendations for the greater good, especially during this plutocratic, New Gilded Age that has become our reality. If that’s what being “apocalyptic” is all about, then so be it.

As U.S. universities embrace the New Gilded Age, what institutions will help us to grow a better society?

Suffice it to say that American higher education, as a general proposition, is embracing the values of the New Gilded Age. A growing number of American colleges and universities are degenerating into career training centers, touting unpaid internships while charging sky-high tuition, neglecting the liberal arts, and loading up on well-paid administrators and exploited adjunct faculty while shedding full-time professors.

These trends are disturbing in and of themselves. Moreover, they raise a challenging question: If universities are heading in this direction, what institutions, structures, and networks will help us to blend research, theory, and service toward creating a better society? And how do we create decent, paying, sustainable jobs to support this work?

Of course, the fate of the public intellectual in higher education has been a subject of debate for some time now, especially since the 1987 appearance of Russell Jacoby’s important book, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Among other things, Jacoby posited that sharp trends toward narrow specialization in academic scholarship were creating a professoriate that is less relevant to the major public issues of the day.

Yup, one could argue that part-time college teaching jobs, unpaid internships, “non-stipendiary” fellowships, and assorted volunteer gigs offer outlets for expression and creativity. And between individual blogs, sites like The Huffington Post, and free websites, there’s no shortage of online venues for publishing or sharing one’s work.

The problem is that most people have this weird need for food, shelter, and clothing. “Exposure” and “contacts” don’t pay for those basic necessities. A little bit of job security wouldn’t hurt either.

During the coming months, I will devote some space to exploring this and related questions, incorporating a variety of new and emerging voices on public intellectual life in this plutocratic, New Gilded Age. In doing so, I’ll be talking about educators, researchers, activists, practitioners, writers, artists, and others who share a common, understandable concern that our society has no place for them.

As a central part of this inquiry, we need to consider strategies for change. Is it possible to reverse the bad course taken by so many standard-brand universities? Or do we have to think about creating new, sustainable entities that embrace a different, better set of values? If so, how do we go about this?

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To the many readers who follow this blog because of its focus on issues such as workplace bullying, employee well-being, workers’ rights, and the like, stick with me on this one. Research and ideas matter, including within the realm of dignity at work. However, mainstream academe has not been a major driving force in calling for a more humane workplace, which means that we have to identify, support, build, and create the institutions that are eager to do so.

Worth watching: Robert Reich’s “Inequality for All”

How much inequality can we tolerate and still have an economy that’s working for everyone and still have a democracy that’s functioning? Of all developed nations today, the United States has the most unequal distribution of income and wealth by far, and we’re surging toward even greater inequality.

-Robert Reich, from “Inequality for All”

If you’re looking for an informative, insightful, and lively take on the challenging question of how the American economy threw the middle class under the bus, Robert Reich’s 90-minute documentary, “Inequality for All,” fits the bill.

Reich is now at UC-Berkeley, teaching courses in economics and public affairs, after many years at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a term as Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton. A prodigious author, he turns to the documentary form to deftly blend economic data, income trends, political changes, tax policy, and personal stories & interviews. It’s not pure wonkishness; the film also tells us something of Reich’s interesting life story, too, and several segments exhibit his sharp wit and self-deprecating sense of humor.

As is the skill of a gifted lecturer, Reich packs a lot into the documentary in a way that doesn’t overwhelm. You’ll learn about the impact of globalization and technology on American jobs, how lower tax rates on the wealthy have had a negative correlation with overall economic health, and how the U.S. economy in 1928 (the year before the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression) looked eerily similar to that in 2007 (the year before the Great Recession). You’ll also hear a wealthy CEO talk about the destructive aspects of extreme wealth concentration, and you’ll listen to stories of people trying desperately to stay in the nation’s middle class.

I have a few quarrels with the film. For example, I think Reich was a little soft on the reasons behind the virulent anti-union tactics of some American companies during the past few decades. I also believe that he needed to spell out the fuller implications of globalization for workers everywhere.  But I recognize that choices must be made to keep a documentary within a watchable length, and overall it makes very good use of our time.

“Inequality for All” opened in theaters last year, and it is now widely available in various DVD, on demand, and streaming formats. I just watched it this week, and I am happy to recommend it.

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One of the extras in the DVD is deleted footage about Reich’s 2002 campaign for Governor of Massachusetts, in which he made it onto the Democratic primary ballot but did not win the nomination. Reich uses a chunk of the segment to explain how personally difficult it was for him to spend so much of his time chasing down people for campaign contributions.

I volunteered for Reich’s campaign the day I read an announcement of his candidacy, and I served as a Reich delegate at the Democratic state nominating convention. The deleted documentary segment doesn’t fully convey the way in which he attracted a lot of supporters who had felt alienated from party politics in Massachusetts, not to mention the fact that he ran a very respectable campaign despite getting in the race late and operating with a shoestring budget.

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. Dictionary.com 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.

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