December 8, 2011
By Dennis Loo
The American Dream, as everyone knows, is that if you work hard, play by the rules, and persevere, that you will have a comfortable life for you and your family: (what used to be described as) the house with a white picket fence, 2.5 children, a chicken in the pot, and a Winnebago.
What is the situation for the American Dream today?
The Executive Editor of Gallup was on NPR this morning and reported that if you ask Americans what their job prospects are now that only 8% say that this is a good time to be looking for work, the lowest percentage that they have ever recorded. He went on to say, “however,” and this is “a big however,” he emphasized, if you ask people on a longer time horizon if they’re still hopeful for themselves and their family’s future, that they still mostly believe that things will be alright.
The continued hold of the American Dream over people can be seen in this poll result and Gallup’s interpretation of it. What can also be seen is how under siege this view is, even among, or perhaps more accurately put, especially among average Americans. If we look at the overall trajectory of the U.S. political economy and that of the rest of the world (see the most recent weeks’ news out of the Euro zone, for example), we can see that the conditions for the 99% are not hopeful and in fact, the reality of what has been happening and the course of economic and political policy is why a critical mass of people came together so rapidly in the Occupy Movement – the recognition that conditions are bad and getting worse and that the existing institutions offer no relief from that picture.
As I wrote in my 2006 book, Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney:
[A]s the New Deal/Keynesian Welfare State is systematically dismantled by the neoliberal state—the political expression of globalization—as privatization takes the place of social programs, as deindustrialization and downsizing and speedups and take-aways proceed, as insecurity of job and livelihood becomes the norm rather than the exception, as the positive incentives, in other words, for normative behavior (jobs and decent pay, etc.) are increasingly shredded, the state and the corporate world have no choice but to rely more and more heavily upon coercion to ensure co-operation and to forestall rebellion and revolution. Coercion itself must be used more, but even coercion doesn’t work in all instances and sheer terror must be employed given their overweening ambitions for world domination. (p. 106)
The Republicans and the Democrats, in other words, both operate within the logic and constraints of the overall system of neoliberalism, whose characteristics are briefly listed in the quote above. Both parties behave, however, as if they were adversaries in a professional wrestling match that is full of bluster and posturing, fake punches and throws of their opponent designed to dramatize to the audience that they really, really hate each other and they really, really want to win. Like professional wrestling matches, the American polity is called upon to pick a side, to choose who their champion is and whom they will root for and whom they will in turn boo. But as former wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura put it in describing the GOP and the Democratic Party: like wrestlers who despise each other in the ring, after the show is over they all go to dinner like the best of buddies (or, perhaps, in the case of public officials, play golf together).
This is evident in the most recent public speeches of Obama and Mitt Romney. Obama “came out swinging” as some pundits put it, sounding like a populist and decrying the grotesque greed of the 1%, describing the middle class as endangered, and calling for fairness and a return to the ideals of equal opportunity. Romney, firing back, asked rhetorically if we were going to be a country of merit or one of entitlements, a peculiarly hypocritical stance since the truly entitled are none other than the 1% that the Republican party unabashedly represent.
To illustrate why these two positions are really essentially the same, let’s take a look at the Parker Brothers game Monopoly. In the game everyone starts out with exactly the same amount of money and everyone gets a turn to roll the dice and advance across the board. As everyone who has ever played this game knows, within the space of a couple hours or so one player becomes the monopolist and the rest of the players are either bankrupted or close to bankrupted. Monopoly the game is thus both a realistic portrayal in one sense of the fundamental nature of capitalism and in another sense unrealistic. The outcome of Monopoly the game is largely realistic, although in the real world there continue to be small business people and a professional middle class that continues to exist even as many of them, especially the small business people, are wiped out. They continue to exist because in a real society they perform necessary functions in the overall division of labor and cannot be entirely dispensed with, especially those from the managerial and professional classes.
The part of Monopoly the game that is unrealistic is the way that the rules call upon everyone to start with the same amount of money. In the real world, of course, no such equal opportunity exists and people start out life dependent to a large extent on how well they have chosen their parents.
What the game Monopoly illustrates, however, is that even if absolute equal opportunity existed, the outcomes over time would be extremely unequal. This is not because some people are so clearly smarter, more talented, and harder working but because of happenstance and the advantages or disadvantages of choosing your parents well or poorly and choosing your gender, race/ethnicity, place of birth, and so on. What an individual does and how much they persevere in the face of challenges, of course, matters and we are all of us different and better or weaker in our different attributes but these things do not overall matter as much as the social forces that we are all surrounded by all of the time.
In the economic system of capitalism, competition (aka free enterprise or market forces) exists side by side with monopoly. Some, perhaps many, people believe that all would be well if we could just get the monopolists, the megacorporations, out of the picture or limit their power. This is not true and here is why, put into a nutshell:
First, economies of scale undermine free market competition; big fish eat up little fish. The drive for profits impels businesses to seek competitive advantages, to expand their market shares, and to eliminate their competition, either through buying out competitors or by driving them out of business….
It is in the nature of free markets to cease being free markets. Libertarians’ belief that free markets are the solution to all ills, therefore, cannot be realized and implemented any more than a butterfly can go back to being a caterpillar. Small may be beautiful, but big is cheaper and more powerful. Small businesses can, and always will, emerge just as small saplings spring up amongst the towering pines, but the economy’s key players will continue to be big businesses. Some of the big businesses will be supplanted—witness General Motors’ bankruptcy plight even though for a long time it had been the world’s largest corporation—but the companies that supersede their previous competitors will then assume the monopolist position themselves. The players may change, in other words, but the disparities of position between big and small remain structurally and fundamentally the same.
Second, capital seeks profit-making opportunities everywhere. This ceaseless drive for profits leads—indeed, compels—the largest companies to burst past national boundaries and roam the globe in search of still cheaper labor and resources. Sam Walton, Walmart’s founder, believed that his company should sell only American-made products. His insistence on this, however, has obviously passed away like eight-track stereo. Walmart would be non-competitive today if it did not seek the cheapest labor it could find. This fact, put very briefly, is what imperialism is in the economic sense. Imperialism is a compelling and inevitable consequence of capitalism itself within the more advanced capitalist countries. It represents capitalism’s underlying logic carried forward into monopoly capitalism and expressed and active on an international scale. Imperialism is, therefore, not a choice; it is not something that could be dispensed with by corporations and their governments any more than a vampire could choose to be a vegetarian. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, pp. 77-78)
In other words, free enterprise leads inevitably and naturally to monopoly. Monopoly represents a mature or late phase of capitalism where monopoly exists side by side with competition and intensifies that competition on a world scale, leading to convulsive crises, immiseration, repression, and wars.
Both major political parties in the U.S. and also the ruling parties in other nations in the world today operate within this capitalist/imperialist framework, which is why siding with one party or another against the other opposition party is as useful (or useless) as rooting for one professional wrestler against the rest. Another way of putting this is that the old game of “good cop/bad cop” is a game meant to delude the person in custody into doing things that are against the person in custody's own interests. Today the world is being held in the custody of the Good Cops and the Bad Cops. The only solution to this dilemma is to break out of the framework that the 1% want to keep us contained in.
Recently pollster Frank Luntz, while conducting a session for GOP governors on how they should respond to the Occupy Movement, described himself as “scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death.” He warned that the movement is “having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism." Luntz went on to tell the Republican governors that they should avoid using the word "capitalism" and that they should emphathize with the protestors: “First off, here are three words for you all: ‘I get it.’ … ‘I get that you’re. I get that you’ve seen inequality. I get that you want to fix the system.” The whole set of advice was very interesting and very revealing, especially given the official Republican line which is that the Occupy movement is futile and confused.
Obama, for his part, tried to co-opt Occupy and the Tea Parties in his "Teddy Roosevelt" speech while trying to keep people's faith within the confines of the existing game.
Both major parties responses, then, illustrate a core fact about politics that the parties themselves and nearly all pundits deny: that social movements that don't tie themselves to electoral politics are NOT wasting their time. The main reason these officious bodies and individuals claim that the only politics is the politics that they control and dominate is because they genuinely fear the independent actions of mass movements. As such movements become more popular and more determined, the establishment tries all the harder to rope these movements back into the fold and keep them from changing the game.