Sunday, October 17, 2010

How Progressive Ideas Protect Inequality

“There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” [NYT, Nov. 26, 2006]

There is indeed a class war whose outcome will determine whether our society will remain one based on inequality with real control over society in the hands of a privileged few, or become one based on equality and genuine democracy; and right now billionaires like Buffet are winning. But the billionaires are few in number and we, the people they are defeating, vastly outnumber them.

The question, then, is, "Why are we losing the class war?" The answer is that we are not trying to win it. Instead, we are fighting for what are generally known as progressive goals, but progressive goals don't actually make society more equal and democratic. Why not? Let's look at some of the most popular progressive goals to see what the problem is with them. They all have an appeal that makes us want to fight for them, but winning them has consequences very different from the appeal.

Our National Interest

The appeal. This phrase is often used as an indisputable reason to do something, as in opposing U.S. aid to Israel on the grounds that it is not in "our national interest" to support Israel.

What happens if we win it? The concept "national interest" falsely asserts that all Americans have a common "national" interest, blinding people to the crucial fact that our nation is not a place where we all share common interests but is instead a place in which class conflict rages. It prevents people understanding that in order to have our government adopt just domestic and foreign policies it is necessary to win this internal class war. A few Americans reaping huge profits from the military industrial complex love wars (that they assert are in the "national interest") because these wars allow them to take trillions of dollars to pay for their privileged life style instead of for things that would make life better for ordinary Americans. People who think they are fighting for some mythical "national interest" that everybody in the nation shares--rich and poor alike--are fighting for something that simply does not exist.

Further, when we fight for "our national interest" we are prevented not only from fighting our own nation's plutocracy but also from allying with ordinary people of other nations in international working class solidarity against all national ruling elites. The concept of national interest tells us that our American national interest is different from an Iranian national interest or a Chinese national interest etc. This way of thinking allows ruling elites to divide-and-conquer us. The concept of "our national interest" is a bogus concept that prevents us from winning a more equal and democratic society.

National Self-Determination (aka National Liberation)

The appeal. National Self-determination (aka National Liberation) seems to be about ending the master-slave relationship between people in places like Palestine and countries like Israel that dominate them. If only the people in Palestine had the "right to self-determination" then the master-slave relationship would be ended, and hence the world would be more equal.

What happens if we win it? National self-determination has nothing to do with making the world more equal. If Palestine's government consisted entirely of non-Jewish natives of Palestine then Palestinians would enjoy national self-determination, but their society could still be extremely undemocratic and unequal. The undemocratic and wealthy elite who presently control the Palestine Authority would remain just as undemocratic, wealthy and indifferent to the poverty of the many as they so notoriously are known to be today. Black South Africans discovered that winning self-determination (i.e. a government whose top leaders are black South Africans) does not equate to making their society more equal; in fact the economic gap between the many and the few has grown even wider since their success in winning "self-determination."

National interest, national liberation, national self-determination, "black power," Zionism, and all of the other variations on this theme are examples of the ideology of nationalism, which says that the important thing about people is their nationality or ethnic group, not whether they try to make society more equal and democratic. Nationalist ideas always undermine the efforts of people to win the class war.

Equal Opportunity

The appeal. The phrase features the word "Equal." And "opportunity" sounds like a positive thing.

What happens if we win it? Equal opportunity and social equality are two very different things. Social equality means people are all in the same class when it comes to wealth and power. Equal opportunity, in today's society based on competition and enormous class inequality, means that everybody has the same opportunity to engage in the competition that sorts people into a few winners and many losers. Equal opportunity would result in the gender and ethnic and racial composition of the winners being exactly the same as the composition for the overall population. Whatever category of people one considered--blacks, males, etc.--their proportion among the winners, and among the losers, would be exactly the same as in the whole population. The upper class could still be as wealthy and as privileged as it is today, but women and blacks and hispanics would be perfectly (i.e. proportional to their numbers in the population) represented in the upper class. Millions of people could still be homeless or destitute but their gender and racial composition would be perfect--exactly the same as that of the upper class. In this sense, equal opportunity is about making our extremely unequal society "perfectly unequal." But we don't want perfect inequality; we want equality.

Making inequality perfect only serves to give it more legitimacy. This is the ruling elite's goal; it should not be ours.

Level Playing Field

The appeal: When things are unequal some are higher than others, so making things "level" must therefore make the world more equal. In 17th century England the "levelers" were people fighting to make society more equal. In a game like soccer, if the playing field is not level then the team driving the ball downhill has an unfair advantage, so a level field makes the competition fair.

What happens if we win it? As with "equal opportunity," what is "level" about the playing field actually has nothing to do with making the world more equal and democratic. It means the same thing as "equal opportunity": perfectly fair competition resulting in perfect inequality.

Affirmative Action

The appeal: Discrimination against racial minorities and women is a form of inequality, so it would seem that discrimination in favor of racial minorities and women makes the world more equal.

What happens if we win it? Racial and gender discrimination are indeed forms of inequality. That's why the goal should be to end such discrimination, not just to change its target. The original goal of the Civil Rights Movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., was to abolish Jim Crow laws, making it illegal to discriminate based on race. This goal for greater equality had enormous support from blacks and working class whites. Only in response to pressure from Richard Nixon and other upper class forces did the leaders of Civil Rights organizations change the goal to affirmative action after the assassination of MLK, Jr.

Affirmative action has not made the United States more equal and democratic. Warren Buffet knows this is true and so should we. Ordinary blacks suffer imprisonment and joblessness more now than before affirmative action laws were implemented. Affirmative action made the upper middle class and corporate board rooms include more blacks and women, but for ordinary black people and women, having a lousy job without health insurance, or losing one's home to foreclosure, or spending one's life in prison are not made any better by having a black person or a woman managing the machinery of inequality. Affirmative action, like equal opportunity and a level playing field, is about making inequality perfect, not making our society more equal.

The "action" in affirmative action refers to acts taken by the upper class--by the corporations and the government they control--and not actions taken by we the people. These actions--in particular, telling countless whites for decades that they didn't get a job or a school admission because it had to be given to a less qualified black person--have unfortunately succeeded in doing precisely what the upper class intended they do: foment racial resentment and undermine solidarity between white and black working people. The action that we the people need to take must first be to get back on the road that the old Civil Rights Movement was on--attacking racial/gender discrimination no matter whom it discriminates against. Then we need to continue on that road to build mutual support wherever working people are under attack, uniting men and women, immigrant and non-immigrant, black and brown and white in a struggle against inequality and for a new world.

Marriage Equality

The appeal: "Equality" is in this phrase, so it must be about making a more equal world.

What happens if we win it? Same-sex marriage, which is what this phrase refers to, is about making same-sex couples identical to opposite-sex couples with respect to laws regarding what couples can marry. The premise here is that society is less equal when some kinds of couples cannot marry and more equal when any couple can get a marriage license no matter what. If it were true then our society would become more equal if we abolished the laws against siblings marrying each other. But nobody believes this.

Same-sex marriage would do nothing to reduce the gap between the wealthy few and the remaining many. Some of the rich and powerful as well as the poor and powerless might include such couples. The billionaire Buffets and Soroses, however, could not care less.

What the billionaires do care about, however, is giving legitimacy to the undemocratic nature of our society in which a political/corporate elite make the important decisions. One way to do this is to persuade a large minority of the population, progressives who are disproportionate college-educated with higher salaries than most, that the majority is not fit to make important social decisions--that the very idea of democracy, in other words, is wrong. The billionaires have succeeded in this by using their mass media to conduct a public debate about same-sex marriage in which those who oppose it because of a genuine concern for children, and who don't fit the stereotype of a religious fanatic bigot, are excluded.

I have written elsewhere (here and here and here) about why same-sex marriage is a bad idea because it is harmful to children, and why that--not bigotry--is the reason many people vote against it, like African-Americans in California, seventy percent of whom voted for Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage. The billionaires use this phony debate to persuade progressives that the majority, who voted "No" to same-sex marriage in 31 out of 31 state referenda, are "homophobic bigots" and therefore certainly not fit to determine social policies. The progressive Green Party, for example, with its slogan "It is wrong to vote on rights," asserts that the majority should not even be allowed to vote on marriage policy. This illustrates how a progressive idea can cause its followers to actually oppose democracy, i.e. to oppose equality in the political arena.

A Greener, Self-Sustaining, Low Carbon Footprint World

The appeal: The environment, we are told, will no longer support human life unless this goal is achieved, so this goal is a necessary condition to have any kind of human society, never mind a more equal and democratic one. Additionally, if one works for this goal then one is going against the bad guys--the Big Oil industry.

What happens if we win it? A greener, self-sustaining, low carbon footprint world can be every bit as unequal and undemocratic as the present one, and our plutocracy intends to make it so. The plutocracy is as concerned about protecting the survival of the human race as anybody. They want the human race to survive with them as the privileged ruling elite, and they will do what it takes to ensure this. Class war is not about whether the human race should do what is necessary to survive; it is about whether human society in the future will be more equal and democratic or not. By focusing on human survival instead of equality and democracy, we abandon the goal that actually distinguishes us from people like the owners of Big Oil, and hand the future over to them.

The carbon-cap etc. goal doesn't challenge the Big Oil agenda at all. As an article in the online Asia times reports:
"Big Oil - from Exxon Mobil to Shell and BP - along with a Fortune 500 cast of global corporations, many directly linked with Big Oil, will also make a killing. They want a direct global carbon tax - as ExxonMobil has called for, on the record. This carbon trading system will link national "cap-and-trade" markets; the "caps" will be in line with the targets for emission reduction. This explains the "paradox" of Big Oil actually being in favor of fighting global warming."
Nothing in the above assumes that Al Gore's warnings about human-caused global warming threatening human survival are false. But there is good reason to suspect that they are indeed false. Go here and here to read why.

What Else Do These Progressive Ideas Have in Common?

Not coincidentally, one can find influential institutions--that receive financial backing from the billionaire class--promoting all of these progressive ideas. The Ford Foundation in 1996 "contributed $1.4 million to activities aimed at defending affirmative action against political attack." In academia, people like Judith Stacey, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology and Professor of Gender and Sexuality at New York University and a prominent proponent of same-sex marriage, are funded by elite foundations. "Professor Stacey's research has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Russell Sage Foundation." A well-funded "progressive" establishment keeps these ideas in the forefront, like the proverbial carrot dangled on a stick in front of a horse to make the horse go where the master wants it to go, a place that has nothing to do with the horse getting the carrot to eat--what it actually wants.

Movements Often Win What They Aim For, For Better or Worse

When it comes to goals--like social equality--that are opposed by the ruling elite, mass movements never win them unless they explicitly aim for them. That is why the ruling elite work so hard to make sure that what we explicitly aim for is never the actual abolition of class inequality and upper class rule over society. They fear the day that masses of people stop fighting for plutocracy-approved goals like "self-determination," "equal opportunity," "affirmative action" and "marriage equality," and instead focus on overthrowing the power of our plutocracy and making society more equal and democratic for real.

Good Leadership Versus Bad

Billions of people want social equality and yet far too often we are organized around goals that have nothing to do with this aim. Our leaders, either for self-serving reasons or ineptitude, define our goals with ideas that protect inequality. Why do we let them get away with this?

The reason is that far too often we, ourselves, do not see clearly what is wrong with the ideas espoused by our leaders. We seldom subject the goals of our leaders to collective critical examination with everybody encouraged to speak their mind freely, and without feeling that our goals have already been determined by the leaders and the only thing left to discuss is how to win them.

We need to turn things around. We need to determine our own goals. Good leaders are the people who help us do that. They help us develop confidence in our own values and the ability to articulate and fight for goals that reflect those values. These are the kinds of things that we need to consider when evaluating our leaders. Just because the newspapers and politicians say so-and-so is our leader, and just because so-and-so claims to be our leader, does not mean it's true. Good leaders do not tell us what our goals are and stifle discussion about the matter. Good leaders remind us that choosing our goals carefully is the most important thing of all! They warn us: "Be careful what you wish for. You may get it."

We, the large number of non-leaders, cannot blame our failure to win the class war on external problems over which we have no control, such as the billionaires being too rich and powerful, or our leaders being bad. Our problems are internal--therefore things that we can change. We can change the goals we fight for, and we can change the way we evaluate our leaders. If we do this we can win the class war.


At 5:33 AM, October 23, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with most points in the above article. Yet, the rejection of national self-determination in the name of international working-class solidarity is not, in my opinion, realistic.

Working class struggle must be organized and begins at the local level, where people meet and know each other. The geographical dimension is essential. The idea of "international" struggle sounds wonderful, but requires many levels of delegated power, which typically results in corruption. Democracy cannot be achieved in huge states because, again, it requires many levels of delegated power. Demoracy - and I mean something else than our formal representative democracy depending on wealth - can only achieved in relatively smaller societies. There comes in the idea of self-determination. As a citizen of Iceland, a small nation of 300,000 inhabitants, I consider that democracy for the Icelandic people - which they have not yet achieved - will be a pipe dream if Iceland would join the European Union, or - God forbid - a global government. The only chance for the people living in Iceland to achieve a high degree of democracy and thus of social justice, is by retaining Iceland's sovereignty, including its ability to determine its own economic and social policies.

In addition to the social and economic dangers of shedding sovereignty, there is huge danger to national culture, such as one's language. The wealth of languages in the world is under constant attack by overwhelming cultural imperialism of the Anglo-American empire. Only national sovereignty, well protected by governments that represent their people, can defend nations from being culturally wiped out.

Typically, citizens of huge states such as the U.S., Germany or France look condescendingly upon small countries that try to maintain their independence. This condescending attitude, sometimes garbed in language of "modernism" or "international solidarity", is inacceptable for members of dozens of small nations.

At 3:30 PM, December 30, 2011, Blogger Abram Spritzler said...

in response to the first response to the blog entry;
Lack of a large coordinated effort by the people to show solidarity and maybe material support to the working people of another country does not mean that people cant act in ways that promote a world based on equality and solidarity for people they do not know or who they do not have a direct (or visibly direct) effect on.
The point about needing many levels of delegated power should be put into context. Different structures of delegating responsibilities to citizens are needed for different tasks, one could argue. One could also argue, as i would, that these structures could be created in a democratic process, and are not to be feared or thought of as impossible.
Sovereignty as you define it is something that equates to the people (via democratic government i hope)of each territory of the world has the right to decide for itself the operations of its economy and government. Nothing about this is opposed by having an international outlook. It seems that you are afraid of the larger militaries and corporations taking over your territory, ending democracy or making it much harder to achieve democracy. This will not be stopped by working for justice at home only, at the expense of seeing your struggle for equality and democracy in the larger context of a global, species-wide struggle for peace and justice.
And to the point of cultures of different peoples being wiped out, you yourself admit this to be caused by imperialism, not working people's desires to destroy other cultures (this desire does not exist obviously). When the US has its revolution for democracy and real equality, there will be no rationale for pitting working people of different cultures against each other (as the elites do now to gain control over the working class).
And lastly, who exactly do you know that has a condescending attitude for people of small nations working to preserve and pass on their culture to their children or others not born into that community? Cultural and racial, and even sexual differences are used to wrongly show working people that working people may all work, but that the similarities end there, and that the differences in viewpoints and ways of living and worshiping or not worshiping are stark and irreconcilable. The differences that are not reconcilable are not the ones that lead to massive human suffering unless there is also class inequality.


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