My disillusionment

This post has been revised here.

I grew up with an image of the United States as a country governed in a democracy, where the individual vote mattered, where politicians represented voters, where laws were passed in the public interest, where courts rendered justice, where everyone had economic opportunity.

This image is, of course, a naïve view of the country. I also grew up during the Vietnam War, and believing that “liberty and justice for all” didn’t just mean people in this country, that it should apply as well at least in any country we fought for, and thus that it should apply for the Vietnamese as well. The contradiction between that belief and the fact of the Vietnam War led me to stop saying the Pledge of Allegiance, led me, even then, to adopt an antagonistic view toward this country’s foreign policy.

But the war ended, Richard Nixon resigned, I dropped out of high school (and headed straight for community college), and I was able, for a time, to re-adopt that naïve view, particularly as I strived to follow my father, a professional engineer, into a professional career—in my case, computer programming. When Ronald Reagan was elected, I guessed that his presidency might discredit conservatism. When he was re-elected, I guessed that it would have to get worse before conservatism was discredited.

I burned out as a computer programmer in 1985, and left my job in Selma, a small town about 15 miles south of Fresno, California. I returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, fully expecting to find another job—as a computer programmer. It was my first hard high technology hit. I didn’t just waltz into another computer programming job. And I began a long experience of working class life.

Working class life belies everything I learned about what this country was supposed to be—the naïve view—but because I was bright, I continued to believe that I could succeed, that if I managed to get a good job, my talents would be recognized, and I would be promoted. But I also noticed that my fellow workers—some of whom became my friends—had no such prospects. Working—as I was, even if I failed to recognize it at the time—in dead end jobs, they (and I) paid a high price for trying just to get by, a price paid in suffering severe oppression, a price paid in a dearth of opportunity.

My family did not understand this dearth of opportunity. My parents had come of age in the 1950s, when it was possible to believe, as Gerhard Lenski wrote,[1] that our coercive hierarchical system of social organization had, after some initial very large excesses of inequality, produced a decrease in inequality. I came of age in the 1970s, however, when “stagflation,” a condition of high inflation and low economic growth (as measured in GDP), led to the adoption of neoliberal policies, which promoted widening disparities.[2]

In a space of nearly twenty years of mostly working class life, and sometimes abject poverty, I endured a lot. I bounced in and out of the technology industry and landed hard a couple more times, the latest being the dot-com bust, before returning to school in Fall 2003, partly because student loans could help to pay my way. But I abandoned all previous hopes of a computer science degree. Observing the H-1B visa scam, in which high technology companies import cheaper workers to avoid hiring skilled workers already in the U.S.,[3] and recognizing the effects of outsourcing in technology and in manufacturing, I believed I should not pursue a degree in anything my father (who had committed suicide in 2000) would have regarded as “real” work—I recognized that as soon as the rich could figure out how to get a job done cheaper elsewhere, that job would be gone, and that I would be starting again, trying yet again to learn whatever the new skills of “the future” de jour were, taking out yet more student debt, and that if I guessed wrong, I would still be stuck with the same abysmal low-level service jobs that are created or left in globalization’s wake.[4] I completed a B.A. in Mass Communication and an M.A. in Speech Communication, enrolled in one Ph.D. program, and then switched to another (I’m much happier with my second Ph.D. program than the first).

Fig. 1. Annual unemployment since 1948, calculated as a percentage of people in the labor force minus number employed. The dark blue line counts those who are not in the labor force but want a job now, a statistic only available since 1994.

David Benfell Fig. 1. Annual unemployment since 1948, calculated as a percentage of people in the labor force minus number employed. The dark blue line counts those who are not in the labor force but want a job now, a statistic only available since 1994.

Having been through over twenty years of a mostly failed employment history, returning to school gave me access to something of an explanation, an explanation I’ve been developing ever since. Of the peaks in unemployment (figure 1), I had been securely employed only during the one in 1982-1983, and I came to understand viscerally, even before I could offer backing,[5] that when capitalists speak of efficiency, this invariably comes at a cost to labor.

I also noticed what anyone who has worked for tips will tell you—that rich people are the worst tippers. I realized that they become rich in part by devaluing others, by using their leverage to get better deals. Max Weber actually wrote this nearly a century before I realized it,[6] that a capitalist system (really, any economic system of exchange) inherently privileges whomever has the greater ability to say no. It’s a good thing I did realize it, because the way Weber wrote it, I might have overlooked it, except that I recognized it:

It is the most elemental economic fact that the way in which the disposition over material property is distributed among a plurality of people, meeting competitively in the market for the purpose of exchange, in itself creates specific life chances. The mode of distribution, in accord with the law of marginal utility, excludes the non-wealthy from competing for highly valued goods; it favors the owners and, in fact, gives to them a monopoly to acquire such goods. Other things being equal, the mode of distribution monopolizes the opportunities for profitable deals for all those who, provided with goods, do not necessarily have to exchange them. It increases, at least generally, their power in the price struggle with those who, being propertyless, have nothing to offer but their labor or the resulting products, and who are compelled to get rid of these products in order to subsist at all.[7]

As Weber recognized, although not in complexity theory terms, this is a positive (destabilizing) feedback. It cyclically reinforces a trend to widening inequality.[8] And in addition, the rich do everything possible to keep themselves rich and everyone else worse off.[9] Quite apart from the actual competence needed to do a job, the rich determine what attributes they recognize as worthy, and promote those who possess those attributes.[10] The incompetence I and so many others perceive—hence the popularity of the Dilbert comic strip—is a product of this so-called meritocracy, because meritocracy strongly tends to devolve into a system for preserving the position of the wealthy.[11]

I have learned as well that while I may not be able to earn a living, I still serve a vital function in our system of social organization: that of being what others are afraid to become, that of being an example of what happens to people who do not (or cannot) comply. Those of us who are in an even worse condition serve further to rationalize the employment of police officers, prison guards, and all the other people who work in the criminal injustice system,[12] dividing the poor and working classes against ourselves.

There was more. In those days, and in the days since, I learned for the first time that the Vietnam War had been started on a lie, that the Central Intelligence Agency had provoked the Gulf of Tonkin incident; that the news media are not so much watchdogs on the government as participants in propaganda; that they rely too heavily on ‘official sources’; that they are owned by corporate conglomerates and thus face a conflict of interest when reporting in the people’s, rather than the corporate, interest; that journalism schools instill a bias that assumes the supremacy of the United States and its system of social organization[13] I learned that the United States is chronically at war.[14] I was resensitized to the story of the American Indian.[15]

And far too many times, I thought that I had gotten a handle on the depth and breadth of corruption among our ruling elite, only to stumble across some other hideous truth, that compelled me to reassess. There is, of course, still, much more, the more recent of which often gets published here or in my research journal.

That brings me to the actual motivation for this post. I began by writing of my own naïvete about the political and economic systems that govern this country, a naïvete that had been contradicted by my personal experience. It is a naïvete that was still shocked when, for example, there was a financial crisis, and the government rushed to bail out the banks, and to keep whole the people who caused the crisis, but left the unemployed and homeowners with underwater mortgages to twist in the wind.[16]

But while I have mostly, I hope, outgrown this naïvete, it is still held by many others. This is a naïvete that implicitly assumes that poor people and people of color must indeed be more dangerous than better-off whites as it reposes faith in a systemically discriminatory system of law enforcement,[17] the same system that largely excused the people who caused the financial crisis. It is a naïvete that is shocked by attacks like 9/11 and which acquiesces to an ongoing war in Muslim parts of the world without realizing that “[t]here was not a single act of Arab terrorism against Americans before 1968, when the U.S. became the chief supplier of military equipment and economic aid to Israel,” a decision undertaken by then-President Lyndon Johnson, a policy which then presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy promised to continue, and a possible motivation for Sirhan Sirhan’s assassination of Robert Kennedy.[18] It is a naïvete that accepts military spending on par with the entire rest of the world and an imperial presence as necessary to keep “us” safe.[19]

This is a naïvete that continues to back Obama despite his betrayal of nearly every progressive hope.[20] This is a naïvete that continues to excuse Obama, preferring to blame Congress, even as he repeatedly caves in negotiations with determinedly obstructionist Republicans.[21] This is a naïvete that may very well accept Obama’s word when he claims that a massive National Security Agency collection of phone records and that the same agency’s access to major social network and email servers is, in the New York Times‘ paraphrase, “legal and limited.”[22]

“If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here,” [Obama] said.[23]

This is a naïvete that accepts such claims from a probable war criminal,[24] who rather than prosecuting Bush administration figures for these crimes, has embraced and extended that administration’s programs,[25] and instead prosecutes more whistle-blowers for leaking evidence of criminality than all previous administrations combined.[26]

This is a naïvete that cannot properly assimilate this: “Last year, pressed by progressive donors at a dinner party to act more like the progressive they thought he was, Obama responded sharply, ‘Don’t you remember what happened to Dr. King?'”[27] Ray McGovern slipped this quote in to an article as evidence of Obama’s cowardice relative to John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. We do not know from this context, although McGovern’s article is largely about the national security state, whether Obama fears an assassination by the national security complex or whether he fears assassination from folks like those sending ricin-laced letters.[28] But it’s hard not to notice that the only times that Obama shows any guts are with special forces operations, drone attacks, whistle-blower prosecutions, and in that full-body embrace of so many other Bush administration policies—that is, with a bullying reminiscent of the Vietnam War and McCarthy Era.


  1. Unemployment since 1948[29]
  1. [1]Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).
  2. [2]Michael W. Clune, “What Was Neoliberalism?” Los Angeles Review of Books, February 26, 2013,; Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); J. Craig Jenkins and Craig M. Eckert, “The Right Turn in Economic Policy: Business Elites and the New Conservative Economics,” Sociological Forum, 15, no. 2: 307-338; Paul Krugman, “How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?” New York Times, September 2, 2009,; Timothy Noah, “The United States of Inequality: Introducing the Great Divergence,” Slate, September 3, 2010,; John Quiggin, “Austerity Has Been Tested, and It Failed,” Chronicle of Higher Education< May 20, 2013,; Robert Reich, “The Tinderbox Society,” May 1, 2012,
  3. [3]Jordan Weissmann, “The Myth of America’s Tech-Talent Shortage,” Atlantic, April 29, 2013,
  4. [4]Richard J. Barnet and John Cavanagh, “Mass Production in Postmodern Times,” Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005), 112-120; Barbara Garson, “Down Is a Dangerous Direction: How the 40-Year “Long Recession” Led to the Great Recession,” TomDispatch, April 9, 2013,; Erin Hatton, “The Rise of the Permanent Temp Economy,” New York Times, January 26, 2013,; Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006); Thomas Weaver, “The Ecology of Globalization: The Wolf at the Global Door,” Human Organization 68, no. 4 (Winter 2009): 363-373; Maxine Baca Zinn and D. Stanley Eitzen, “Economic Restructuring and Systems of Inequality,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 16-19.
  5. [5]Ben S. Bernanke, “The Level and Distribution of Economic Well-Being,” Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, February 6, 2007,; Steven Greenhouse and David Leonhardt, “Real Wages Fail to Match a Rise in Productivity,” New York Times, October 28, 2006,; Tim Kasser, Steve Cohn, Allen D. Kanner, and Richard M. Ryan, “Some Costs of American Corporate Capitalism: A Psychological Exploration of Value and Goal Conflicts,” Psychological Inquiry 38, no. 1 (2007): 1-22.; Alana Semuels, “As employers push efficiency, the daily grind wears down workers,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013,,5976597,1009581,full.story; Alana Semuels, “How the relationship between employers and workers changed,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013,,0,716422.story; Yves Smith, “America’s Broken Jobs Engine,” Naked Capitalism, July 10, 2012,; Alan Tonelson and Kevin L. Kearns, “Trading Away Productivity,” New York Times, March 5, 2010,
  6. [6]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, Charles Lemert, ed., 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 119-129.
  7. [7]Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” 120.
  8. [8]George Kent, Ending Hunger Worldwide (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2011); Jerry Z. Muller, “Capitalism and Inequality: What the Right and the Left Get Wrong,” Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2013,
  9. [9]Peter W. Cookson, Jr., and Caroline Hodges Persell, “The Vital Link: Prep Schools and Higher Education,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 380-391; G. William Domhoff, “The American Upper Class,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 156-164; Ralph H. Turner, “Sponsored and Contest Mobility and the School System,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 71-76.
  10. [10]C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000).
  11. [11]Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012).
  12. [12]Herbert J. Gans, “The Uses of Undeservingness,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 85-94.
  13. [13]J. Herbert Altschull, Agents of Power: The Media and Public Policy, 2nd ed. (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1995); David Croteau and William Hoynes, Media/Society: Industries, Images, and Audiences, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2003).; David Halberstam, The Powers That Be (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2000); Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 2002).
  14. [14]David Benfell, “United States history of war,” February 18, 2013,
  15. [15]Most memorably: Bob Blaisdell, ed., Great Speeches by Native Americans (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2000); Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, (New York: Henry Holt, 2001); Christopher Densmore, Red Jacket: Iroquois Diplomat and Orator (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University, 1999); Jacqueline Fear-Segal, White Man’s Club: Schools, Race, and the Struggle of Indian Acculturation (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska, 2007); Darryl Babe Wilson, The Morning the Sun Went Down (Berkeley: Heyday, 1998).
  16. [16]Neil Barofsky, Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street (New York: Free Press, 2012); David Benfell, “Dickens Redux,” August 3, 2011,; J. Andrew Felkerson, “Bail-out Bombshell: Fed ‘Emergency’ Bank Rescue Totaled $29 Trillion Over Three Years,” Alternet, December 15, 2011,; Paul Krugman and Robin Wells, “Getting Away With It,” review of The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery, by Noam Scheiber, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, by Thomas Frank, and The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics, by Thomas Byrne Edsall, New York Review of Books, July 12, 2012,; Bob Ivry, Bradley Keoun and Phil Kuntz, “Secret Fed Loans Gave Banks $13 Billion Undisclosed to Congress,” Bloomberg, November 28, 2011,; Gretchen Morgenson, “Questions From a Bailout Eyewitness,” New York Times, October 13, 2012,; Gretchen Morgenson, “One Safety Net That Needs To Shrink,” New York Times, November 3, 2012,; Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story, “In Financial Crisis, No Prosecutions of Top Figures,” New York Times, April 14, 2011,; Michael Powell and Andrew Martin, “Foreclosure Aid Fell Short, and Is Fading,” New York Times, March 29, 2011,; Yves Smith, “Quelle Surprise! San Francisco Assessor Finds Pervasive Fraud in Foreclosure Exam (and Paul Jackson Defends His Meal Tickets Yet Again),” Naked Capitalism, February 16, 2012,; Matt Taibbi, “Why Obama’s JOBS Act Couldn’t Suck Worse,” Rolling Stone, April 9, 2012,
  17. [17]Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  18. [18]Thaddeus Russell, “Does Israel Maek Us Safer?” Daily Beast, July 4, 2010,
  19. [19]Chris Hellman and Mattea Kramer, “War Pay: The Nearly $1 Trillion National Security Budget,” TomDispatch, May 22, 2012,; Chalmers Johnson, “America’s Empire of Bases ,” TomDispatch, January 15, 2004,; Aaron B. O’Connell, “The Permanent Militarization of America,” New York Times, November 4, 2012,; David Vine, “The Lily-Pad Strategy: How the Pentagon Is Quietly Transforming Its Overseas Base Empire and Creating a Dangerous New Way of War,” TomDispatch, July 15, 2012,
  20. [20]Glenn Greenwald, “Repulsive Progressive Hypocrisy,” Salon, February 8, 2012,; Matt Stoller, “The progressive case against Obama,” Salon, October 27, 2012,; Matt Stoller, “Why is the left defending Obama?” Salon, November 3, 2012,
  21. [21]Peter Baker, “View From the Left: Obama ‘Kept Giving Stuff Away’,” New York Times, January 1, 2013,; Maureen Dowd, “Bottoms Up, Lame Duck,” New York Times, April 30, 2013,; Paul Krugman, “Conceder In Chief?” New York Times, December 31, 2012,; Rick Perlstein, “Our Obama Bargain,” Nation, January 16, 2013,
  22. [22]Charlie Savage, Edward Wyatt, Peter Baker, and Michael D. Shear, “Obama Calls Surveillance Programs Legal and Limited,” New York Times, June 7, 2013,
  23. [23]Savage, Wyatt, Baker, and Shear, “Obama Calls Surveillance Programs Legal and Limited.”
  24. [24]Owen Bowcott, “UN to investigate civilian deaths from US drone strikes,” Guardian, October 25, 2012,
  25. [25]Common Dreams, “War Tribunal Finds Bush, Cheney Guilty of War Crimes,” May 13, 2012,; Glenn Greenwald, “A tribunal in Malaysia applies the Nuremberg Principles to brand the two leaders as war criminals,” Salon, November 23, 2011, <a href="" target="_blank"; Glenn Greenwald, “Obama’s justice department grants final immunity to Bush’s CIA torturers,” Guardian, August 31, 2012,; Jason Leopold, “Former Guantanamo Chief Prosecutor: ‘A Pair of Testicles Fell Off the President After Election Day’,” Truthout, November 13, 2011,
  26. [26]Democracy Now!, “NSA Whistleblower Thomas Drake Prevails Against Charges in Unprecedented Obama Admin Crackdown,” March 21, 2012,; Democracy Now!, “Part 2: Thomas Drake and Jesselyn Radack on Obama Administration Crackdown on Whistleblowers,” March 21, 2012,; Democracy Now!, “Targeted Hacker Jacob Appelbaum on CISPA, Surveillance and the ‘Militarization of Cyberspace’,” April 26, 2012,; Democracy Now!, “After Unprecedented Attack on Whistleblowers, Obama Admin Accused of Leaking Info for Political Gain,” June 14, 2012,; Glenn Greenwald, “Obama campaign brags about its whistleblower persecutions,” Guardian, September 5, 2012,; David Sirota, “On freedom of speech, Obama-Nixon comparisons are apt,” Salon, May 22, 2013,
  27. [27]Ray McGovern, “Why President Obama’s War on Terror Speech Was Full of Half-Truths and Deception,” Alternet, May 31, 2013,
  28. [28]Jim Forsyth, “Texas actress charged with sending ricin letters to Obama, Bloomberg,” Reuters, June 7, 2013,
  29. [29]Data from Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Household Data, Table A-1. Employment status of the civilian population by sex and age,” May 3, 2013,; Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Household Data, Table A-8. Employed persons by class of worker and part-time status,” May 3, 2013,

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

One thought on “My disillusionment”

  1. Amazing article

    Says what many of us have been thinking and finding hard to piece together. This especially resonated with me:

    “And far too many times, I thought that I had gotten a handle on the depth and breadth of corruption among our ruling elite, only to stumble across some other hideous truth, that compelled me to reassess.”

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