COMMENTARY: What is the popular understanding of the causes of our country’s serious economic and social problems?
For example, why is nearly half the population so poor they are not required to pay income tax in the richest nation on earth? And why is the number living in poverty growing? What accounts for the 40-year decline of the middle class? Why is the gap in income and wealth between the richest Americans and the rest of the population at record highs and increasing?
Why is overt prejudice against racial, ethnic, national, gender — in short, all minorities — on the rise? Why is the United States engaged in perpetual wars against countries that have not attacked us? Why do we pay the highest health insurance premiums of any developed nation, yet have relatively poor health outcomes? Why is our public education system in steady decline and college tuition out of reach for increasing numbers of students? Why is our infrastructure left to crumble; our prison population absurdly high; our life expectancy falling and the price of medicines the highest in the world?
The answers to these questions are available to those who seek them out. However, these issues are either deliberately not discussed in the corporate media; or, if they are, false narratives are presented to purposely mislead viewers and listeners (here I am referring to Fox News and AM right-wing talk radio).
Consequently, the real answers are not widely known. A veritable campaign of enforced ignorance is in place because the powers-that-be do not want people to know the truth. Knowledge is power, and the oligarchs are frightened of that power in the hands of righteously angry Americans. The consequence of that widespread ignorance is that polling and news reports indicate that Americans incorrectly hold either Washington gridlock, Congress, immigrants, poor people, minorities, wealthy campaign donors, Democrats, or Republicans responsible for the sorry state of our nation and their own personal financial condition.
There was a break in the silence when, during his presidential run, Senator Bernie Sanders worked to educate the public about the reality that the source of most economic and social problems in the country is that relatively small group of ultra-wealthy corporations and individuals who exercise out-size control over our political and economic life. The group that has come to be known as the 1 percent.
Bernie didn’t simply point his finger, he supported his argument with evidence and data demonstrating that over the past 40 years the wealth and financial stability of working families has declined significantly while the wealth of the 1 percent has shown enormous gains. He revealed how corporate fraud, deregulation of business, and other policy changes that the 1 percent actively purchased from a nearly wholly owned Congress, as well as the virtual destruction of unions, created the conditions for the upward redistribution of middle class wealth.
The societal disruptions were ancillary strategies to cover and protect the machinations of the 1 percent, mostly using the divide-and-conquer approach often used by power to keep the people at bay.
Although Sanders’ message reached many people through his large rallies and via active social media, a far larger number were not exposed to his ideas because of the near total blackout of his campaign by the corporate media. The 1 percent, including those in the party establishments, did not want the Sanders message heard broadly because its truthfulness was a direct threat to their interests. Their efforts to suppress Sanders’ campaign included disinformation and active sabotage by the Democratic National Committee.
The struggle between the American public and large business interests for control of our country has waxed and waned since its founding. The present discussion refers to the involvement of the very largest corporations, many of which are multinational monopolies with extensive lobbying and legal teams. Not included here are the multitude of small or individual businesses that do not have a presence or clout in Washington, D.C.
The United States was created as a nation with a capitalist economy. Unfortunately, the very nature of late stage capitalism is antithetical to the interests and welfare of the public at large. Corporations are artificially created, amoral legal entities bound by their charters to generate maximum profits for their shareholders. The cheapest and easiest way for these huge companies to maximize profits is by exploiting and abusing workers, consumers and the environment. The response of enlightened government to such behavior is to impose regulations on business to protect the public and the environment. In response, business invests heavily to overturn regulations.
Throughout our history as a nation we have cycled between (shorter) periods of relative domination by the government (as the public, through their elected representatives) and (longer) periods of relative domination by corporations through now nominally elected representatives who are actually in the employ of the oligarchs. When corporations and wealthy individuals rule, we refer to it as unrestrained capitalism. Such periods typically and predictably lead to economic collapse — recessions and depressions as occurred in 1870, 1929 and 2008.
Eventually, after that type of event, and typically as a result of public outrage and mass action, the pendulum swings back, regulations are reinstated, corporate taxes are raised, and a more pro-social policy atmosphere prevails. Immediately, however, the claw-back begins. The gains by the people are never stable in this system.
A prime example: In response to the Great Depression, which was devastating to a large swath of the population, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, urged on by a highly-mobilized public, instated a landmark set of social programs designed to provide a baseline of financial security for the people, the New Deal. The ink was not dry on the documents when the wealthy interests began attempts to weaken and reverse the programs. Those attempts have been partially successful and continue to this day, perhaps more vigorously than ever.
Simply put, capitalists view taxpayer money spent on social programs for the public welfare, or spent on projects undertaken by the government itself, as money that is not accessible to them. They will do everything they can to get their hands on it.
One favorite way is to demonize such spending by calling it “socialism.” Another is to try to privatize everything from the Postal Service to Social Security and Medicare.
The vulnerability of our economy and the citizens at large to the inevitably damaging cycles of capitalism demands that we undertake structural change for the sake of economic and social justice, protection of the environment and our health, and, of course, for stability.
Capitalism itself cannot be made stable. It is not in its nature. We as a nation need to develop an economic system that is fair and just and does not conflict with our democratic principles; that provides a living wage to all workers; that puts people before profits; that does not poison the air, water and our health; that protects the environment and our beautiful landscapes for future generations; and that does not require U.S. economic imperialism around the world for its success.
Getting this message out to the broad public is an uphill battle. Progressives are up against a pervasive right-wing propaganda machine in the form of ultra-conservative AM talk radio that reaches almost every small town in the country, as well as Fox News and broadcast and print media outlets, 90 percent of which are owned by six corporations that have forsaken real reporting for infotainment.
The outlets for progressive writers mainly reach progressive readers. We are preaching to the choir. So, in order to maximize the success of our work on restructuring the economic system, we need to find ways to educate many more people about the root cause of our problems. In that way, we will build the popular resistance.
There are existing institutions that may be built upon to carry the message. One is the Moral Mondays movement originated by Rev. William Barber II, the president of the North Carolina NAACP. His ministry is one of progressive political action in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King. Over the summer and fall of 2016 he organized events in churches around the country where he spread the notion of working toward a moral economic system that serves the people.
In the past, trade unions were a natural place for the education of workers about how the economic system works to oppress and exploit labor. Such efforts suffered at the hands of the attacks of business and government on unions over the past few decades. Some unions have forsaken tried-and-true organizing and education of their members for conventional electoral politics. Rejuvenating that organizing and education should be a prime undertaking of our movement.
We need to establish our own local progressive media that is culturally sensitive and relevant to everyday working people in our communities. Media that addresses the daily struggles that people face in making a living: getting quality education for their children; finding quality, affordable housing; obtaining affordable health care and legal assistance; confronting discrimination, etc., in ways that help them understand the whys of their situation. Such media outlets can raise consciousness by exposing the commonalities between the struggles of people in the community and the virtues of joining together to fight for better lives.
Our own local and national progressive organizations could do a much better job of formally educating their members and the communities they serve about political economy in order to arm them for the struggles now and in the future.
In his 2016 book, Breaking Through Power, Ralph Nader asserts that a well-organized and focused 1 percent of Americans is all that is necessary to “get the drive for change underway.” After brief descriptions of a number of progressive policy demands, he lays out a plan for a left/right alliance of activists to establish offices in all 435 Congressional Districts from which to work toward achieving those policies. Supported via local fundraising, four full-time advocates backed by volunteers, each committing to work 300 hours a year, would operate in each district. Nader describes the two goals of the offices:
- The first goal would be to establish an in-person advocacy relationship with their representative and two senators. This is the strategy used by all successful lobbyists.
- The second goal would be to continually arouse the quiet majority of public opinion. The greater the number of people informed, the greater the number of people who will get involved to counter power. Forming local groups to actively spread the word through co-workers, friends, relatives and larger social networks can have an enormous impact.
Nader may be the first to quantify the size of the popular movement necessary to affect change, but it generally comports with the relatively small numbers in the successful progressive movements of the 20th Century. For many, it will be eye opening and encouraging.
Let’s get on with it!
Max Mastellone is a long-time activist and a Las Cruces resident.