As I sat in front of the Rubicon Brewing Company in Sacramento Saturday, I remembered a reason why I might suddenly have felt a nostalgia for that town that morning. I first moved there in 1976 with my mother, having left high school a year early (with a Proficiency Certificate, but I like to call myself a high school dropout anyway), and was then about to start college at Sacramento City College.
I didn’t stay at Sac City long; it appeared that American River College, in north Sacramento, had a better Data Processing program. I started there in Spring 1977 and went on to get an A.A. in Business Data Processing, which I finished in 1979. It would be much, much later, in 2003, that I would return to school to finish a B.A., in another field, in Mass Communication (in 2005) and an M.A. in Speech Communication (in 2009) at California State University, East Bay, in Hayward. I’ve since studied at California Institute of Integral Studies and will be beginning a Human Science Ph.D. program at Saybrook this fall.
I remember an illusion that Sacramento was immune from economic downturns. I would attribute that now to the activity of lobbyists, their clients, and politicians. This is where power is. And where there is power, there is money. But unemployment (officially 12.1 percent in Sacramento County, a large county) is as high as in much of the rest of California.
As I nursed a pint of India Pale Ale, some people at the next table got a passerby to take their photo—a “candid” photo, they said. They were having a good time and a lot of the young people I saw seemed happy and confident. There is hope in Sacramento, even now, even in the Depression of the current era.
The town itself has changed a lot. J Street looked almost nothing like what I remember. But the streets are still lined with grand old trees. As I walked to the brewery from my car, I noticed some grapefruit on the ground. Looking up, I saw I was underneath a big old grapefruit tree. I had just walked under an orange tree, and just ahead of me was a tangerine tree. This is still a place of plenty, but the fruit by which I was able to identify the trees was well out of reach.
Where there is power, there is also discrepancy. This is inherent in any “power over” relationship as exists in the political arrangements of commercial society. And just as I couldn’t reach that fruit, many people cannot reach opportunity, even in the state capitol.
This part of Sacramento is eminently walkable and bikeable. When I lived in Sacramento, I hadn’t learned to drive. I rode my bicycle to Sacramento City College and took the bus—Regional Transit was much more reliable than most transit systems I have encountered since—to American River College. On this day, I walked to the Sugar Plum Vegan Cafe. As I turned into the walk to the restaurant’s front door, I noticed a sign for a Vegan Store, upstairs, so of course I had to check it out.
I wound up buying yet another addition for my collection of unread books, that I may get to sooner because it looks interesting. Getting into a conversation with the proprietors, a married couple who seem to be just getting by, I mentioned the juxtaposition of homeless people with vacant housing—both have been huge issues in Sacramento that have attracted national attention—and they told me that squatters have been moving into vacant houses, taking advantage of a rule—which I am unable to confirm—that after sixty days of taking care of a place and getting utilities turned on, etcetera, the property owner can no longer evict the occupants but must negotiate a lease with them. They also mentioned that there were plenty of homeless people along K Street and along Alhambra Boulevard.
As I sat to eat at the restaurant downstairs, my mind drifted back in time to those days when I lived with my mother at 26th and D. My mother sometimes used to walk her dog across an old landfill near where we lived. I often followed the same path a little further, across to the American River, where I liked to go swimming or walk along a road mostly used only by pedestrians that, as I recall, I could follow all the way to a river beach at a bend in the river. But along that path across the landfill, I saw people who had made homes of cardboard boxes.
The idea of a society is supposed to be that humans band together, to combine our efforts so that all may live better. This means, more or less, that everyone contributes, and that everyone shares in the gain. In order to ensure that everyone contributes, we have an economic system of exchange, which as I have previously explained, inherently privileges whomever is most able to decline a deal. Money, particularly in the modern world, is more negotiable than labor, so people who hoard money as a store of value have the option to spend it wherever they like, while laborers have limited opportunities to exchange their services and usually must commute to their employers’ facilities. Money, therefore, is inherently more valuable than work. Moreover, the valuation of some work over other work is largely arbitrary, as the discrepancy in remuneration between “men’s” and “women’s” work illustrates, and as the discrepancy between CEO and production worker pay illustrates. So money does not accurately reflect social contribution and, despite the mythology of “equal opportunity,” the rich have tremendous advantages in pursuing opportunities over the poor. They have exploited these advantages to magnify disparities even further.
And today, we have a lot of people who cannot find work. Money does not facilitate their contribution of talent and energy. Because they cannot work, they have at most token amounts of money to spend; money is more an obstacle than a help to the fulfillment of their needs. Money instead facilitates the rich in relocating ever more jobs overseas. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “As of 2010, U.S. trade deficits with Mexico totaling $97.2 billion had displaced 682,900 U.S. jobs.” That is for Mexico alone. Multinational corporations
cut their work forces in the U.S. by 2.9 million during the 2000s while increasing employment overseas by 2.4 million, new data from the U.S. Commerce Department show. That’s a big switch from the 1990s, when they added jobs everywhere: 4.4 million in the U.S. and 2.7 million abroad.
Yet the elite of this country, for whom so-called “free trade” opens access to markets around the world, insist that these agreements create jobs—just the other day, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney credited President Obama with pursuing three “free trade” agreements which he said “will produce 70,000 jobs, create or support 70,000 jobs in America”—as if, even if true, Wal-Mart jobs were any substitute for manufacturing jobs, and as if, even if true, 70,000 jobs were of significance against the 31 million that are needed. Scott Sernau of Indiana University in South Bend writes of a new international division of labor:
Those who can control global markets and global production can garner a world of profits, benefiting from both the cheapest inputs of labor and resources and the largest markets afforded by the entire planet. In contrast, those whose skills are now replicated by workers around the world find themselves competing for jobs and wages with the entire planet.
But people here have the same fundamental needs of food and shelter as people anywhere in the world, and almost everything costs more in the United States than in the places where the jobs are going. People here cannot afford to work for what capitalists see as competitive wages. And by and large, they cannot move to the already highly populated areas of the world where the jobs are. Money is not facilitating the exchange of goods and services here; rather money distorts the exchange of goods and services to the detriment of millions upon millions of people.
So the rich, who have gotten very much richer at our expense, don’t need the rest of us anymore. And if anything is evident from the politicking of the last few years, it is that both factions (so-called parties) are beholden to the rich. We are Ayn Rand’s undeserving leeches. We exist to pay off our debts to the rich, as if they hadn’t already been paid off in spades, and to vote for politicians who will continue to pander to the rich. As I wrote in April,
Apparently most companies are reluctant to discuss the trend, but “‘As a greater percentage of our sales have been outside the U.S., we have seen our work force outside the U.S. grow,’ says Jim Dugan, spokesman for construction-equipment maker Caterpillar, which has added jobs more rapidly abroad than in the U.S.” And,
Jeffrey Immelt, GE’s chief executive, says these cuts don’t reflect a relentless search for the lowest wages, or at least they don’t any longer. “We’ve globalized around markets, not cheap labor. The era of globalization around cheap labor is over,” he said in a speech in Washington last month. “Today we go to Brazil, we go to China, we go to India, because that’s where the customers are.” . . .
At some companies, hiring to sell or make products abroad means more research or design jobs in the U.S. At others, overseas hiring simply shifts production away from the U.S.
It’s what I’ve suspected for a while. Having fully exploited the U.S. workforce, having promoted a race to the bottom in workers’ wages, and having run the “Main Street” economy into the ground, the U.S. no longer plays as large a role in multinational corporations’ plans. They are effectively writing the U.S. off.
So those of us in this country who are poor, unemployed, and oppressed might well ask what’s in it for us. Why do we allow these elites, who have taken—or stolen—so much from us, who care so little about us, who have destroyed the fundamental basis of a society for us, to continue to rule over us? And why do we continue to allow money to be the measure of all value?
There are a few fairly obvious reasons for this:
Our system of education discourages this kind of understanding of our situation. The compulsory school system severely fragments information and inhibits its reassembly. Programs such as No Child Left Behind emphasize test-taking skills rather than thinking skills. Education has become indoctrination, not merely to obscure obvious inequities in our treatment of various groups both foreign and domestic, not merely to mask suffering with a pretense of freedom, but to render the topic of social justice taboo. As Donaldo Macedo put it, “how can we honestly speak of human freedom in a society that produces and yet ignores the existence of ghettos, reservations, human misery, despair of poverty, hopelessness, and ‘savage inequalities’?” Instead, anyone who thinks critically about social justice is a threat to the status quo and is subject to severe institutional oppression for being “political,” as if the decisions to obscure truth in favor of the status quo were not themselves “political.” In contrast, those who internalize the dogma may generally find modest rewards within the system.
The Protestant Reformation fostered understandings of human beings as having individual (rather than institutional) relationships with God and of material prosperity as being a sign of being among the “select,” who would go to heaven. Individuals became accountable to themselves in the guise of God, certainly not to the Catholic hierarchy, and incidentally, largely not to societies. Greed thus transforms from a vice to being both a vice and, as ambition, a virtue, sustaining a Christian understanding of human nature as inherently sinful and of humans as requiring authoritarian protection from ourselves, as if somehow the greed of rulers could ever protect us.
This individualism combines with an imagination of a bountiful earth with unlimited resources as given by God to humans for their unsustainable exploitation and transmutes into moral blame for individuals who do not succeed. The latter are not among the “select,” and are in any event bound for hell, so society—understood as composed of successful individuals—owes us nothing.
Sigmund Freud adopted a Christian notion of humans as inherently sinful with his image of indigenous hordes ruled by tyrannical fathers assassinated by their sons. In a natural state, we are conceived of as barbaric and violent. Social agreements—internalized in the superego—are necessary for us to form societies. This view of humanity is unlikely to be accurate, though the fact that Freud’s work had salience for so many, for so long, seems worthy of investigation.
What we now know of indigenous societies is entirely different, that they are largely egalitarian, that they see nature as providing for all their needs, and that in stark contrast to commercial society, they have existed sustainably in this way for 500,000 years. It is possible that some relatively developed civilizations remained largely egalitarian and peaceful until approximately five to eight thousand years ago.
Moreover, Howard Zinn points to residual evidence of human inclination toward community in the 17th Century:
We have no way of testing the behavior of whites and blacks toward one another under favorable conditions—with no history of subordination, no desperation for survival requiring forced labor. All the conditions for black and white in seventeenth-century America were the opposite of that, all powerfully directed toward antagonism and mistreatment. Under such conditions even the slightest display of humanity between the races might be considered evidence of a basic human drive toward community. . . .
Black and white worked together, fraternized together. The very fact that laws had to be passed after a while to forbid such relations indicates the strength of that tendency. In 1661 a law was passed in Virginia that “in case any English servant shall run away in company of any Negroes” he would have to give special service for extra years to the master of the runaway Negro. In 1691, Virginia provided for the banishment of any “white man or woman being free who shall intermarry with a negro, mulatoo, or Indian man or woman bond or free.”
Finally, writing around the turn of the 20th Century, Peter Kropotkin described a history of cooperative society that he denied elites have ever fully managed to extinguish, Emma Goldman interpreted the Spanish Revolution and labor movements of the early 20th Century in cooperative, anarchist terms and Uri Gordon wrote a dissertation on the politics and theory of anti-authoritarian movements as anti-hierarchical and cooperative. Plainly, humans remain capable of cooperation; what should be questioned are assumptions that certain elite humans are uniquely qualified to coordinate that cooperation, that they are uniquely deserving of disproportionate rewards for that coordination, and that while the rest of us should be infinitely replaceable, they alone should be considered indispensable.
Despite the evidence of human proclivities for cooperation, an image of human brutality from World War I took hold, particularly among the elite, and was among them a reason for a public relations campaign developing a consumerist society. Conveniently, this helped to absorb overproduction and fatten corporate profits, enriching the rich even more. The Great Depression and counterculture movement were only temporary setbacks in this campaign. It was thus to be expected in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, that then-President George W. Bush should advise U.S. citizens to go shopping and visit Disney World, lest Al Qaeda deprive us of our freedoms.
The idea of humans as innately thuggish means that the weaker among us require protection from the stronger. Thus, we contract with some of the stronger to protect the rest of us, to grant them sovereignty—meaning an exclusive right to employ physical violence within an identified territory—over us. The image of police officer as our friend obscures a reality that if humans are innate thugs, and if police officers are human, then police officers are thugs, now organized, trained, armed, dangerous, and in our midst, uniquely authorized to use even lethal force against us. Much of the same largely applies to the politicians who enact laws, to the judges who dispense “justice” reduced to law, and to the corrections officers who dehumanize, degrade, and mistreat us in prison. That we so rarely consider this is further evidence of our indoctrination.
And if humans are not innately thugs, then we must move beyond a meaningless good/evil dichotomy, beyond retribution, to a full consideration of the personal circumstances that impel humans to do what we do. Anything less is a refusal to face truth that undermines the moral legitimacy of any punitive measures we may impose.
This indoctrination extends into the mass media partly through journalism schools, where J. Herbert Altschull describes an “underlying belief system”:
that unlimited years of progress lie ahead for the United States and its politicoeconomic system, that the press plays a leadership role in bringing about that glorious future, that the financial structure of the American press assures economic health and political independence for the news media, and that this healthy future can be ensured best of all by following the path of objectivity.
Re-reading these words, I am struck by their implication for climate change, that journalists will assume the likelihood of a technological solution. But they also suggest that journalists will place capitalism beyond challenge. Capitalism is deeply embedded in the reference to objectivity, in which newspaper publishers sought to broaden their readership through an appearance of impartiality. A larger subscriber base would justify an increase in advertising rates, but as Altschull also points out, advertising represented an endorsement of the newspaper by the business community, enhancing the outlet’s reputation. This perniciously associates capitalism with Truth and any challenge to capitalism thus becomes automatically suspect.
This is compounded by technological changes that have dramatically increased start-up costs and which favor mass distribution. A radio station is more expensive than a newspaper. A television station is more expensive than a radio station. And now for any radio or television operation to gain traction in acquiring a sizable audience, it must be affiliated with a network. Corporate conglomerate ownership of mass media outlets and networks has become increasingly consolidated. Corporate parents with multiple business interests, including in the military-industrial complex, and who often seek synergy between them, influence what gets covered, how it gets covered, and how much space or time is allocated to that coverage. Thus, Truth is associated with big business and especially with marketing.
At every step in the criminal justice system, from who decides which of whose acts will be treated as criminal and which of whose acts will be largely ignored, to who is investigated, who is arrested, who is charged, who is tried, who is convicted, to who receives what severity of sentence, the poor are stigmatized and the rich are generally excused. This discrepancy appears most dramatically with white collar crime, which kills and injures many more people and which costs much more than so-called “street” crime. This supports a perception of the poor as undeserving, dividing those who have jobs from those who do not, and thus helps to sustain the status quo.
Throughout U.S. history, the elite have resorted to numerous tactics in order to sustain their hegemony. These have included infiltration, intimidation and subversion, as with COINTELPRO; imprisonment; physical violence, notoriously with labor uprisings but also in assassinations such as of Martin Luther King, Jr.; and even allowing just enough people just enough to avoid an insurrection. Playing one group off against another, as with poor whites against poor blacks or the middle class against the poor, is routine. As Howard Zinn explains the latter,
The Constitution, then, illustrates the complexity of the American system: that it serves the interests of a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support. The slightly prosperous people who make up this base of support are buffers against the blacks, the Indians, the very poor whites. They enable the elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law—all made palatable by the fanfare of patriotism and unity.
In the context of an elite superficially distinguished as political, economic, and military, but united by common interests and origin, the two-party system functions to constrain the range of acceptable political discourse. Zinn writes,
The two-party system came into its own [during the Jackson era]. To give people a choice between two different parties and allow them, in a period of rebellion, to choose the slightly more democratic one was an ingenious mode of control.
The extent to which people imagine significant differences between these factions, currently the Democrats and the Republicans, demonstrates the success of an indoctrination that places authoritarianism, capitalism, property relations, technology, industrialization, militarism, the extraction of natural resources, a notion of social order that embeds the status quo, and the pretenses of equality and freedom beyond challenge. As Gore Vidal explained, “the United States has only one party—the property party. It’s the party of big corporations, the party of money. It has two right wings; one is Democrat and the other is Republican.” And Noam Chomsky writes that “there is essentially one political party, the business party, with two factions. Shifting coalitions of investors account for a large part of political history.”
Helping to sustain all this is that most working people work long hours, much longer than they did in hunter-gatherer days, and have worse lives. As Sernau writes,
In fact, we have evidence that the men and women of hunting and gathering bands may live well. They work less than you or I do, maybe only about 20 hours per week (Sahlins 1972). . . . While they wait, they joke and tell stories, they mend their simple tools and temporary dwellings, they play with their children, and, it seems, they often give some energy to flirting and lovemaking. Their diets are often healthier than those of most of the world’s peasants; in fact, they are quite similar to the diverse, high-fiber, organic diets based on fresh fruits and vegetables supplemented with a little lean meat that nutritionists encourage for the rest of us.
Historically, the notion of the superiority of Western civilization was challenged by the fact that
whites would run off to join Indian tribes, or would be captured in battle and brought up among the Indians, and when this happened the whites, given a chance to leave, chose to stay in the Indian culture. Indians, having the choice, almost never decided to join the whites.
American Indian cultures thus had to be brutally suppressed, and not just because Indians stood in the way of the westward expansion, but because their ideas were completely contrary to and subversive of those of dominant whites. The notion that “civilized” humans must not only work but have an ethic of hard work supports Charles Reich’s understanding that combines an education designed to reduce humans to cogs in the corporate wheel with our working to the point of exhaustion and their pacification with the portrayal of prosperity on television, that inhibits our civic engagement. What is left for us is “entertainment as autocensorship [which] is well understood by totalitarian leaders who aggressively attempt to keep the populace distracted through sports and other means of immediate gratification.” It is only to be expected, then, that high schools and universities should both emphasize sports programs, particularly football, and that municipalities should so prize professional sports franchises, too often ironically given names appropriated from peoples we nearly annihilated.
Thus, the cooperation that is the raison d’etre for society has been perverted by hierarchy, by a grasping for power, by an economic system of exchange, by money, and by a refusal to face truth. We have come to accept that people with money have authority over the rest of us, even when that is their only qualification, and even though a quantity of money has no bearing on competence. Worse, we have allowed these people to define borders, within which they may use even lethal force against us, within which we understand ourselves to be superior to people on the other side of those borders, and within which we have even allowed elites to divide us against ourselves.
Small wonder that as a species, we are now in so much trouble; that we threaten ourselves with war, famine, disease, and overpopulation; that through our attitude of domination over rather than harmony with nature, we have destroyed our environment and set in motion forces of climate change which are escalating and cascading to threaten our survival.
As I sat at the Rubicon, and later at the Sugar Plum Vegan Cafe, and then drove home, starting down L Street, right past the state capitol building, in view of what I think was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s smoking tent, I wasn’t quite at the center of the problem. That would be a few thousand miles east, in Washington, D.C. But really, the problem is with all of us, in our acquiescence to this order that threatens us all. We have the capacity to do better. And if we are to survive, we must do better—and soon. But for the life of me, I am mystified as to how it would ever happen.