Sunday, November 13, 2011

The View From Across The Pond

...or The Rich Versus The Rest.

Politics is, at some level, about tribalism. To what degree varies from one individual to the next but, at some level, party politics is about cheering on our side and condemning theirs. Henri Tajfel proved that the very act of dividing people into groups, or them dividing themselves, creates prejudice against the outgroup and for the ingroup and that happens even when the differences are minimal, trivial or outright random. This is called Social Identity Theory and we can train ourselves to look past it but we cannot prevent it happening in the first place. So, at some level, party politics is about tribalism, us versus them.

Republicans know this. Their entire political machine is set up to exploit it. It's easier to exploit SIT with conservative politics because, while Democratic politics often tries to encourage us to look past that us against them instinct, Republican politics doesn't bother. Republican politics is entirely about "us" (the good, small-town, heartland, conservative America) against "them" (the pointy-headed elites on the coasts who think too much). Divide and conquer. Not the newest tactic but a time-tested and reliable one. What makes them Republican machine different is that they play this game of us against them for the benefit of another them: The "malefactors of great wealth", the monied elite, the Powers that Be by whatever name you choose to call them.

The PtB have a dream, you see. They've had the same dream for a long time, to create a society where the people are so desperate that they'll work for pennies, where workers can be hired and fired at will for any reason they see fit and where their employers owe nothing to the employed. It's not a complicated dream. It's the same "me first, last and only" dream that the PtB have always had. That's why so many of them love the works of Ayn Rand, because she was engaged in mankind's oldest philosophical pursuit, finding a moral cover for naked greed. And that's why the Republicans have spent so long attacking the safeguards society has in place. Because as far as they are concerned, anything that stops you falling into poverty is something that both costs them tax money and prevents you being forced to work yourself to death for them. "I owe my soul to the company store". Since the fall of feudalism, politics can be mostly summed up as the rich versus the rest and, for the least thirty-odd years, the rich have been winning. For that time period, productivity has shot up while wages have stayed flat and the tax burden has been shifted from the rich to, well, you. Yes, I've heard the excuse that "the rich pay most of the taxes" but here's the thing, that would be true even under a flat tax. They have more money coming in so even a flat tax system will take more from the rich than from the rest. I have also heard that excuse that "47% pay no taxes" and I have to laugh at that, purely because the kind of mind that could hear something that absurd and not fact-check it will believe anything. And then I think a little further and realise that what is being promoted there is yet another call to tax the poor and I stop laughing.

America doesn't treat it's poor very well. Nor does my own UK and I could do a whole essay about that but it's besides the point here. America tends to still be stuck on the Victorian notion that the poor are poor not through bad luck or simply because capitalism is designed to have winners and losers but through some moral fault of theirs. You can see this notion underlying all the myths about the poor; that the poor are lazy, fat, drug-addled (all statistically untrue); that they don't deserve medical care. It's the same notion that underlies the arbitrary time limits on welfare too. Again, don't think I'm saying that the UK is immune to this stuff (we're just as bad but it takes a slightly different form here because we have a slightly different culture), I'm just talking about the US on this occasion. The US tends to be rather anti-poor. I suspect that's because, in the fifty-odd years of the Cold War, capitalism became a sort of national religion in the USA. You can see that in the use of "SOCIALISM!" as an otherising epithet. The very idea of anything contrary to capitalism (and specifically, to unrestrained capitalism) is taken as some sort of heresy, the word "SOCIALIST!" proclaimed in much the same way as "WITCH!" was a few centuries ago. And, naturally, the label of socialism has been expanded now to cover all left-wing economic thought. The same people who would whinge like banshees if you labelled them fascist (the furthest right position), think nothing of labelling anyone of the left a socialist. Except they'll now insist that fascism was on the left and much the same as socialism. And if you can't see how that works to the PtB's benefit, you're not paying attention.

Incidently, don't think I'm propounding some grand conspiracy here. I'm not saying that the PtB work in concert. I'm using the term as a kind of shorthand for those who are both rich and politically-active. It's not a conspiracy so much as it's the case that those who are both rich and politically-active tend to see the world in a similar way (although there are exceptions, Warren Buffet being one example) and tend to work toward similar goals. Nor am I a socialist except in the manner mentioned above where everyone on the left is a socialist. Personally, I'm for a system where most things are left to private industry but a few key sectors that society relies upon (utilities, mail, healthcare and maybe telecoms) are either socialised or have a state-run competitor to provide a bottom-floor of service for price. In the US, you might call that Democratic Socialism. In my old PoliSci class, it was called a "mixed" economy. So, that's where I stand.

The last few years haven't been easy on anyone. They've been frustrating for those who think as I do. We've seen banks fall and while the solution was obvious (nationalise the damn things!), it was never mentioned by those in power. We've seen unemployment skyrocket and a too-small stimulus that helped some but not enough. And we've seen the GOP all but abandon any claim to not being the political arm of the PtB. Obama has been something of a disappointment. While always better than the Paleolithic/Pathetic ticket he ran against and always better than whichever maniac will end up representing the GOP this time (which will probably be Romney), he hasn't been the kind of transformative president everyone was hoping for. In fairness, he's also had to contend with unprecedented vitriol and obstructionism from the GOP. Obama is clearly going to be re-elected, barring massive fraud from the GOP and that too was predictable. One thing I never saw coming was the "Occupy" movement. Even now, I'm not sure if it will stick around or, really, what it wants. I understand that they're protesting economic injustice but not what they propose to rectify that, if they propose anything. Maybe, at 35, I'm too old to understand it.

Still, things are always worse on Main Street. Unemployment is high. Shops aren't selling much because no-one has money to buy anything. The GOP's control of the airwaves has turned piddle-down economics and "free markets uber alles" into common wisdom. They've waged all-out war against Keynesianism, re-written history to claim that it doesn't work. And yet, it does work. Not always and not perfectly but it does generally work. Obama's stimulus was only room-temp Keynesianism. Too large a portion of tax cuts for it to really qualify. His Jobs Bill was a good step in the right direction but that should have been proposed back when it was likely to pass but then, Obama wouldn't have been able to campaign for his second term on it (I like Obama but he is still a politician). And the GOP still push their master's agenda: Lower wages, no unions, no benefits, no entitlements. On Main Street, jobs are the most pressing issue. Without jobs, people can't buy and without people buying, businesses can't sell. Jobs are the main issue. But you'd never know it listening to Republicans. According to Republicans, the main issues are abortion, sharia and something called a "war on wealth". That last one is possibly the most disingenuous phrase concocted since "the death tax". Very few people actually resent people being rich. What we resent is them becoming rich at our expense.

In a way, I pity Americans. Not just because you have another year of campigning to sit through (campaigns here last four-to-six weeks) but also because your public debate about economics is so limited. You are not allowed to suggest alternatives to capitalism or even major modifications to it or you're marked down as a "socialist", a kook, a heretic. And it's going to take a very long time to alter that, if you can alter it at all (which will require overturning that bloody Citizens United decision). I wish it was going to be easier but I doubt it will be. But two things Americans have in abundance are energy and ingenuity and really, that's all you need.