Why is No One Fighting the New Robber Barons?

Last week, Bill Moyers interviewed historian Steve Fraser on what he calls our Second Gilded Age. Despite the anodyne title of the segment, The New Robber Barons, it was really about why the American public has been so quiescent in the face of rapidly rising income inequality, while during the first Gilded Age, a wide range of groups rebelled against the wealth extraction operation. I encourage you to watch the segment in full or read the transcript.

The constraints of the show meant that Fraser could only sketch out some of his ideas. Here are some that stood out:

STEVE FRASER: I think we underestimate the degree to which the politics of fear operates in our society and in our economy. If you’re living– look at us now. The dominant form of employment, or what is becoming the dominant form of employment in our economy today is contingent, casual, precarious labor, without any protections. No security at the job. No fringe benefits. You’re at the mercy of your employer and an economy that’s in chronic flux. Pensions have been stripped away. The social safety net has been shredded to a very significant degree. When you’re faced with that kind of situation naturally you have to think twice about whether you’re going to fight back.

BILL MOYERS: What about this notion of, you know, I’m an individual. I’m standing against the wave of history. I can, I may have hard luck, I may be oppressed, but I can reinvent myself. And that fable of American life is very powerful.

STEVE FRASER: It’s very powerful.

BILL MOYERS: The business press in particular. Infatuated with these people.

STEVE FRASER: Yeah, and every man was going to be a speculator and make it rich. And do it on his own. Do it on his own is the key thing. How are you going to get collective resistance if everybody dreams instead of their own individual ascent into the imperium, you know, realm of wealth and power? And so that it’s kind of like a fable of democratic capitalism. That is capitalism as a democracy of the audacious who will make it on their own, while in fact most of the people are headed in the opposite direction.

And it allows people whose real life is tied to this highly impermanent, unstable economy think of that as a good thing. As a form of freedom. I’m going to reinvent myself. Okay, I can’t count on my employer to hire me on any permanent basis. I can’t count on that kind of envelope of fringe benefits that’s going to protect me and my family. Good. I’m going to reinvent myself as a kind of freelancing, free agent, you know, mini Jamie Dimon. And this became persuasive to a certain segment of our population. And so it’s also part of the fables of freedom that I think have conduced to acquiescence.



BILL MOYERS: Of freedom?

STEVE FRASER: Yes. One of them is this notion of the free agent. That he’s out there and he’s going to reinvent himself. Another fable of freedom is an old one but it’s taken on new and very telling life in our time. And that is the fable that you can escape and be free privately through consumer culture. That that is the pathway to liberation. And that has always offered itself up all through the 20th century as a way of escape.

I don’t mean to minimize the importance of material wellbeing for people and the need to live a civilized life. To have what you need to live a civilized life. The material things you need. But we have advanced way beyond that. And we deal in fantasy to an extreme degree. And it’s very hard to resist this because the media in all of its various forms presents an image of the country which we’re all supposed to respect, admire and strive for which is at variance with the underlying social and economic reality that millions upon millions of people live.

Yves here. I suspect the idea that Americans are addled by fear will resonate with a lot of readers. I don’t see it simply as a function of how precarious jobs and businesses have become, but more as an established feature of American culture that is becoming more and more evident as social stresses rise. For an advanced economy (as in one with a lot of specialized work roles and internal mobility), this country has a deep seated conformist streak. One is expected to be upbeat, pleasant, and uncontroversial. Strong personalities and eccentricities are not well tolerated unless you are in an alpha position. The US does not have much of a working class intellectual culture and bohemianism is similarly frowned upon (if you doubt that idea, think of how many of your peers would be happy if their kids’ career plans consisted of, say, working in a bike repair shop so they could make rent money while they toiled away on their paintings or great novel). In other words, for large swathes of the public, even before American society became openly Hobbesian, status competition was important. That creates pressure to adhere to adhere to models that are advantageous, or at least don’t work to your detriment.

The second is his discussion of how the free agent model is celebrated. I contend that the real issue is atomization. People no longer have much involvement in their communities due to increasing workplace demands and two-earner families. And with job tenures short, the workplace isn’t much of a community either. When citizens have little or no connection with a community, and even less with community organizations, they are less likely to think about or know how to create new organizations to redress social wrongs.

It’s hard to believe that anyone who has been in the real world for any length of time would see the free agent notion, which is targeted at middle and upper middle class members, as attractive. Even if you have an idea as to how to pick yourself up out of a career trash heap and find a new type of work (which is what that cheery Orwellianism “reinventing yourself” really means), it entails downtime (as in having to go into your savings, if you have any) and risk. Moreover, for at least a decade, Slashdot has featured regular articles of young IT grads desperate to find entry level jobs. The oldsters patiently confirm that they are pretty much gone. If computer professionals, supposedly one of those in demand, high skill career paths, can’t even get started in building a portfolio of marketable skills, how can they possibly go solo?

In fact, MIT economics professor emeritus Peter Temin pointed out what is really going on. As wealth disparity rises, the rich live more and more in isolation and more and more in fear of loss and of their personal safety. This leads to a lower-trust environment in workplaces, particularly as employment has become more transient. That leads employers to implement more and more measures to make individual workers even more disposable by fragmenting and standardizing tasks and increasing surveillance. While that may make the wealthy more secure and fatten their profits near term, it also has the effect of destroying the innovative potential of the organization, so in the long term, they are limiting its growth opportunities.

So the free agent myth is indeed a fable told to the economic cannon fodder to energize them to go out and meet their fate. Perhaps readers will tell me otherwise, but the only people I see who believe in it in a serious way are those high on the food chain (as in they need to assuage their conscience or genuinely don’t know any better), and various corporate boosters, such as the business press, consultants, and academics.

Fraser’s point about fantasy is important and not widely recognized. When I lived in Oz from 2002 to 2004, I’d come back to the US a couple of times a year. I had the time to see movies back then, and I also made a point to watch Australian TV to get more in tune with the culture (not that Australians are big on TV, mind you). It was stunning to see the difference in the commercials. The Australian ones were funny, straightforward, and had normal looking people (as in attractive but not excessively so). The American ones back then, by contrast, were often deranged: no clear plot, as if they meant to evoke a dream (I gotta tell you, my dreams are very rich yet a ton more linear), weird images, like people flying around or scenes morphing as a person rode or walked through it, shimmery backgrounds (as in the commercial was clearly not in the real world). I found watching them to be alienating rather than intriguing, yet a whole raft of ad agencies clearly thought this sort of thing worked and they might even have research that supported their belief.

For a short interview, there is a lot more grist for thought, so I hope you take the time to watch the show. And even more important, I hope readers will give their own views as to why there has been so little in the way of protests. Militarized policing is one big contributor, but we’ve seen how the protests against police brutality had in fact managed to shut down highways and make political statements through die-ins, so changed tactics could shift those dynamics.

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  1. joecostello

    The biggest reason is how much the american political process has changed in a hundred years. lets look at one big part, a hundred years ago, the presidency wasn’t the focus of electoral politics, people were much more concerned about local elections, the federal government wasn’t nearly as dominant. Remember direct election of Senators was one of the reforms of the era, as people grew more aware of the power of the Federal government which grew with the power of the “robber of the barons” – big money/big corporations need big government – ie establishment of the Fed.

    The huge number of political associations which were once spread across the nation, no longer exist, they use to provide votes, today, Im not sure there’s an organization in America that could provide the votes to elect a dog catcher. The last half-century saw the rise of TV as main medium of politics and decline of parties and of course organized labor, which in the 20th century was the main organized alternative to the rule of big money.

    Today, whats left of American politics is endless discussion of the presidency, and that’s no politics as at all. The inability of any opposition to the rule of big money is no mystery, there is no politics for it, it needs to be reinvented and that needs to be started by relearning something about democratic poltics.

    1. Carolinian

      The last half-century saw the rise of TV

      Exactly. It is television far more than recent technologies such as the internet that changed the country and its politics. One really can’t overstate this. For awhile it seemed that broadcasters, mindful of their dependence on public airwaves and FCC licenses, would have a positive role. The reforms in the Sixties were very much a product of television and its coverage of the Civil Rights struggle and Vietnam. But things changed with the advent of Reagan–a tv star of course–and now the medium is primarily a propaganda outlet for the status quo as well as a political money pit. The vast sums needed to run for office go to pay for television commercials in the main.

      You don’t hear this much from the big time journalists because they all want to be on tv as well. Many have even “gone Hollywood” with cosmetic surgery to enhance their camera appeal. Instead many blame the internet for the decline of the journalism. Perhaps what they are really afraid of, though, is the web’s threat to their own high status as shapers of the national conversation. Young people are watching less and television itself has become atomized, fragmented. So while tv had everything to do with politics and culture of late 20th century America that may not continue to be true. One can but hope.

      1. jsn

        As important as TV is the suburbs: Americans are physically dispersed and physically atomized in a way that was simply impossible in previous eras. The American car culture has taken the social concentrations that supported progressive politics and dispersed them. The suburbs support the “making it on my own” myth until you can’t pay the bills anymore, but by then you’re so isolated you can’t do anything about it.

        It’s ironic that we’re opening to Cuba at this particular moment as the Cuban model of micro agriculture may be the only way to salvage 80 years of American mal-investment in suburban development:

        This is, of course, the opposite of how TPTB see it:

        1. scottenter

          And as important as the combination of TV and the suburbs is the critical 3rd component: Drugs. As both a symptom and a cause in the downward spiral of our culture, their importance also can’t be overstated or overlooked. Last I checked we were the largest market for and largest consumers of mind-altering drugs in the world, both the street kind and the prescription kind, and they throw powerful fuel on the fire. They enhance the fantasy and escapism and distraction of TV and other media; they soothe the pain and ease the boredom of the physical and social isolation of suburbia; and they soothe the pain of feeling inferior and like a “loser” compared to the beautiful and successful people on said TV. They help these unsustainable situations drag out a lot longer than they otherwise would. Why take the risks of fighting for something better when you can do nothing and cope by just getting high instead?

    2. Torsten

      There is no local any more. This is a process that began long ago and since has passed through railroads, interstate highways, television, and internet. Global village. Everybody in the village knows the end of civilization is coming, but they’re mostly in public denial: Don’t disclose the defects in the property. Sell it while there are still suckers who will buy it. IBGYBG.

      A few more Katrinas or Sandys will wake people up, very possibly too late. The good news, such as it is, is that when they do wake up, they won’t be able to blame it on the Communists, the Blacks, the Chinese, or the Devil. They’ll know we did it to ourselves.

      1. MG

        Katrina or Sandy aren’t going to be the ‘end of civilization’ and Americans will do the exact opposite of what you are claiming and look for scapegoats of a wide variety if necessary.

        1. Torsten

          That’s why I said “a few” and “possibly too late” and “such as it is”. People preach “Growth! Growth! Growth!”, but fail to notice the planet isn’t getting any bigger.

      2. MartyH

        Most optimistic that … some will come to the fact-supported conclusion. The rest will cling to the propaganda “talking points.” The multi-generational propaganda program of the Business Party has borne fruit. We cling to Orwell’s Orwellianisms. We ignore such Orwellianisms as the “Free Market” which is freedom from the laws and any obligations to society or “Austerity” which is austerity for you and yours and vast profits for the Capitalists, or “Democracy” which is now an excuse to overthrow democratically-elected governments to destabilize nations and/or install dictatorial but pliant non-democratic governments. I’m betting, that the trope of blaming “the other Party” will continue and that The Base of each will continue believing the propaganda.

        1. Left in Wisconsin

          Honest question: What is the fact-supported conclusion? Even for people who more or less see what is going on, there is no clear alternative strategy for most of them. They can’t drop out, they can’t challenge either the boss or the petty tyrant (most likely driven by insecurity her/himself) that manages them, they are scared sh–less of losing their job and the one thing they truly know is that NO ONE is succeeding by challenging the system.

      3. Pepsi

        Mass alienation is a good reason. This is why we need to form communities, organize, get together, get to know each other.

    3. Banger

      The concern about the Presidency is an expression of celebrity culture. Celebrity culture is about the religion of narcissism–the self as object of veneration–if your own ego isn’t big enough perhaps lighting candles to very big egos may help. I see radical egotism at all levels. I see it with traditional liberals/progressives, right wingers, conservative religious people, and New Age people who claim to be moving away from the ego but aren’t–the do “yoga” to be “better” not to achieve union with God. Not to say that there aren’t individuals in all these groups who don’t fit the type but they are the exception.

      1. ambrit

        That has been the way of humanity since the beginning. Saints are special because there are so few of them. One of the leadership insights the Right has exploited so well, given, I’d suggest, their low opinion of people in general, is that, people are easily fooled. Why else the importance placed on “cadres” in revolutionary movements? Someone has to ‘lead the way.’ The need for saints to do this work comes from the near certainty that the ‘clearers of the way’ will be persecuted and cast down. It’s not a comforting job description.

    4. Thomas

      I have 2 additional inputs regarding the lack of more protest against the robber barons.
      1 – First you would have to know generally who the “robber barons” and the economic forces that have accumulated so much wealth and income concentration. You know those 1%ers?
      Your best bet is to stop with the images of NFL players and Hollywood celebrities. True they are rare examples of wealth, but they don’t give an accurate representation of the 1%ers. Because the point I’m trying to make is that the vast majority of 1%ers are earlier born BABY BOOMERS (65-69ish). How is it that 3.2 million baby boomers (The 1% of our 320 million Americans) have come to accumulate such economic advantage over the rest of us (other not so well off baby boomers, Generation-X, and my generation, currently the most exploited and poorly paid…..Gen-Y/Millenials.

      Here’s how the 1%ers made their way. ….and to be certain this is why that in America today outcries of inequality between whites and minorities , men and women, straight and guy are all outdated. The real battle lines should be drawn between the young vs. the old…these old timer baby boomers are ripping off our future!
      Here’s how they did it…….they are older so they came before us. America has always had “older-came-befores”, but these Baby Boomers are different. Here’s why. America just like any economy has a rookie-to-mid-level-to-veteran sequence. However, the baby boomer veterans have been able to use their “came-before-advantage” to all but decimate that income career chain sequence for those younger hopefuls that have followed. How do you become the richest Americans ever? Once you get to the top of the corporate ladder, turn around, pour gasoline down and light a match!

      I’m not suggesting that these old timer Baby Boomers invented “ladder-trashing-for-personal-gain”, but that they have been able to take it swiftly and broad-economy-wide-thoroughly to a much higher level of significant income inequality. Combined with their “came-before-advantage” they also had their careers graced by the largest tax cuts in history (began by Reagan and continued status quo by Bush#1, Clinton, Bush#2, and Obama). Those tax cuts packed a much bigger punch for the boomers compared to the boomer-slashed paychecks of us “came laters”. In addition to the tax cut greed, Boomers were the first CEOs enabled with corporate technology, which they have viciously used to induce mass layoffs and keep wages low for us “came-laters”. That’s not a story of white and black. That’s not a story of men and women. That’s a story of old-timers exploiting the young like never before. But those baby boomer 1%ers also have had no problem laying waste to their own generation. You could say the worst of the baby boomers = the worst Americans in our country’s history.

      #2 – These baby boomers are our parents, and have created this “life-career-mate-home” model in our minds as the typical American story. I don’t think enough people in America understand the financial impossibility facing us “came-laters” as a general group to acquire the same life model as our parents. That’s a model that was certainly a lot easier to achieve BEFORE the ladder-trashing and paycheck-slashing program took speed. Any ladder-trasher or paycheck-slasher should know that DUH!

      Also, while tainted with depressingly low success rates, that mental model of life holds quite strong in Americans, no matter how unrealistic. Do you think that mindset influences the mating and marriage market? For sure! Generation-X took to financing it when real incomes fell short.

      Regarding this big picture bewilderment of a lack of protest in America about our “robber barons” and economic inequalities and exploitations, I feel compelled to suggest that it might be my generation, Gen-Y/Millenials to put up a fight, and here’s why. …..Not to accuse Generation-X of selling out, but on the WHOLE, Generation-X kind of has a financial/economic profile of a generation that Started Somewhere..
      …..But Hasn’t Really Gone Anywhere. Lots of baby boomers have two homes, generation-x gets one. Lots of baby boomers got promotions and real paycheck increases. Generation-X has endured patience with less.

      Enter Gen-Y/Millenials. We are shaping up to be Generation Start-Nowhere-Go-Nowhere and I think things could get nasty between us and the baby boomers when just another of our weddings is conducted in mom’s basement, when more years pass and those playing the game of patience become more frustrated and hostile towards a generation they don’t respect anyways. IT WILL BE HARDER TO KEEP THE PEACE BETWEEN BABY BOOMERS AND THE MILLENIALS THEY ARE SCREWING OVER SO THOROUGHLY. They for sure aren’t putting as much on the table as they gave to generation-x, so we aren’t getting the same peace payment.

      1. Lambert Strether

        You can’t use both 1% and generational tropes simultaneously. Fortunately, the 1% stuff is rapidly abandoned as, I imagine, some sort of sugar coating.

        1) “HARDER TO KEEP THE PEACE” Well, when you adopt a frame designed by people like Pete Peterson to create “intergenerational warfare” (so-called) it’s hardly surprising that the peace would be hard to keep. This is so obvious I can only assume that hate management is your objective, bringing me to:

        2) “I’m not suggesting that these old timer Baby Boomers invented “ladder-trashing-for-personal-gain” Ha, that’s a very elegant use of paralipsis (“I don’t even want to talk about the allegations that my opponent is a drunk”). Despite your attempt to particularize a generation with “old timers,” the fact remains that generations don’t have agency; they don’t “invent” things. (The 1%, on the other hand, does; so it seems odd, to say the least, that your focus wanders from them.)

  2. Ven


    Good discussion. On your question – isn’t it just because we have become ‘dumbed down’ initially through the ubiquitousness of TV, and the increasing tide of vacuous entertainment shows (Big Brother, Xfactor et al), and more recently with video games, gadgets, etc, etc.

    And this dumbing down has two effects. Firstly, it trains people to sit indoors in relative isolation and be spectators rather than participants. And secondly the conditioning that these entertainments provide – video games playing out violence, game shows celebrating success through individual talent, films and news media consistently portraying a one-sided view of the world. All these, together with the consumerism, job insecurity and idea of a lone entrepreneur striking it rich, contribute to the acquiescence. The idea that we – and others – are the authors of our / their fortune or misfortune.

    A century ago, these distractions just weren’t there. So I suspect people actually talked to each other about was going on around them.

    I’m less optimistic that this can now be changed. But then capitalism really has sowed the seeds of its own destruction – though that destruction will probably be more wide-ranging than simply capitalism itself.

    1. Ben Johannson

      All things end, at least in this universe. The left overlooks the power of ideas, of how what is in our heads shapes social interaction, and is therefore defeated. They talk about raising taxes, paying fair shares, making markets work: by definition these demands embrace the right’s narrative of how an economy functions, of how it must function. Rather than challenge the dogma of self-interest, makers vs. takers and hard work as pathway to success, the left reinforces it and grants legitimacy to the right’s political agenda.

      Free-market religion cannot be shaped to serve the interests of the people without effectively enshrining it. This religion must be torn out by the roots, not by tinkering with tax rates. The good news: the insights needed for doing so already exist, and they begin with the State Theory of Money.

      Once we understand money as a creation of the state, of society, the logical conclusion undermines the very existence of an even partially free market.

      What makes our extraordinary productivity and material wealth possible? A standardized unit of currency allows the necessary level of societal coordination. No non-monetized economy exceeds the subsistence level.

      Where does money come from? It comes from us, from the power we invest in our sovereign government.

      What does this mean for free markets? They cannot exist in any significant scale.

      How do markets price things? By working from the government’s baseline. What it chooses to spend drives the average price for commodities in that market. Rational agents and firms are a sideshow.

      Where does produced wealth come from? It is created socially and then appropriated for private use. Government and its sovereign currency must exist before private entities can coordinate to produce abundance. The collective political entity is the maker and individuals are always and everywhere the takers.

      1. Banger

        Good points–particularly that free markets cannot exist. They are a fantasy–all markets are weighted and manipulated by political forces–some are more free than others but all benefit a ruling elite who control the markets. How people believe in a free-market is beyond me it’s obviously not the case. Today, if I feel like I want some ‘shrooms I can’t legally get them and so on–the State prefers that we take drugs that dull us.

          1. bruno marr

            …that’s a bit of a stretch, but I get your point.

            The Marx statement that “Religion is the opiate of the people.” is actually but one sentence in a paragraph where his point is that people need their “Illusions”. And that religion and capitalism provides it for them.

            1. ambrit

              Too true. My Dad started out a poor London lad heavily exposed to Trades Unionism. He always laughed when he said that The Party, (you could hear the Capital Letters when he said it,) was an Industrial Christianity. I would argue that some “illusions” help people advance, while others retard their growth.
              For some strange reason, I’m reminded of a section in one of Colin Wilsons books where the villains are ‘unaware’ of the evils they are committing. Once they are awoken from their delusions, they commit suicide. If only our blessed predatory elites would do the same.

        1. MartyH


          The commenter said the market is created under the regulation of the governing bodies … one would assume that they would extract some compensation for the service of regulating the market for the benefit of its participants. What did I miss that elicits this response?

          1. washunate

            They talk about raising taxes, paying fair shares, making markets work: by definition these demands embrace the right’s narrative of how an economy functions

            Did you miss that swipe at people who advocate progressive income taxation, social insurance, and other policies that suggest alternatives to MMT’s core policies of JG/ELR and massive net deficit spending? Ben is defining these kinds of centrist policies as embracing the right’s narrative.

            1. bruno marr

              He’s not “swiping” at the concepts of progressive taxation, but folks who fall into the trap of promoting those ideas while simultaneously supporting the neoclassical argument of “free markets” (which actually don’t exist as free markets).

              In other words, don’t try to beat Vegas in Las Vegas.

                  1. washunate

                    I do find interesting the reluctance to give concise answers.

                    Is it because you don’t think the wealthy should pay more in taxes? That doesn’t sound quite so evil as calling it austerity, does it?

      2. buffalo cyclist

        Great comment. I would also add that contract law is another example of how a “free market” cannot function. This is especially true of health care, where providers use the legal principle quantum meruit to charge emergency room patients egregious rates well in excess the cost of providing the care (and which patients can never successfully challenge even when they provide evidence that the rates charged significantly exceed the cost or market value). Of course, without the court system to enforce contracts (including quasi contracts where the patient never consents), our private health care system would collapse.

      3. John Merryman

        Just like rock, movie, sports stars, politicians, preachers, etc, bankers power rests on the desires of the masses. For money, in this case. The consequence is we treat it as a commodity, but it is a contract and so in order to create as much money as society demands, we have to monetize every possible relationship in society.
        The only end will be when it finally blows up and people start to realize they only have each other.

        1. Left in Wisconsin

          I disagree. Banker power relies on control of the system, of which control of the narrative is but one key part. Most ordinary people understand the system is rigged against them and in no way support it. (This is not denying that 20-30% of any population tends to be anti-social a-holes, but it is important not to give them more credit or support than they deserve.)

          I also disagree that it will only end when the system blows up. Depending on how you view things, the system has either blown up several times already without much notable change, or will never blow up in the way you envision. If you have a system fundamentally constructed on job/life insecurity, and the system continues to function more and more poorly, what you get in the absence of a clear alternative moral and political program is more insecurity and less willingness embrace risk by challenging the system.

      1. Banger

        Not that far-fetched if you use video-games as a symbol. What does it symbolize? The tendency to make a life in the virtual (fantasy) world rather than the one that exists. Fantasy, denial, and escape are the hallmarks of this age–if you chose that sort of life then income/power disparity doesn’t matter so much.

          1. Vatch

            An E.M. Forster reference! I was very surprised when I learned that he had written a science fiction story.

      2. jonboinAR

        The traditional term for this sort of distraction is “bread and circuses”, not far-fetched so much as well-known and ancient. Think NFL, NBA, Nascar, Duck Commander, all of the home remodeling and cooking contest shows Endless, continual upgrades of all of our electronic gear. You name it. We’re flooded with all the brain-numbing distractions we could want to encourage us to deny a less pleasant, thornier reality.

    2. Ulysses

      “A century ago, these distractions just weren’t there. So I suspect people actually talked to each other about was going on around them.”

      This is very important. People are constantly fed an image of “normal” American life that makes them feel like “losers” because they don’t share in it. They know that times are hard in their own town since the factories shut down, but they assume that “most” other Americans live the carefree, affluent life portrayed as “normal” on T.V. Thus they lack the tremendous sense of empowerment that they would have if they understood the truth– that 80% of their fellow Americans can’t afford the “normal middle-class” lifestyle of the T.V. sitcom, and at least 40% of them endure serious poverty.

      This “American Dream” fantasy machine is now in the process of breaking down, and people are slowly starting to awaken to reality. The elites are hoping that racial, cultural and religious divisions will prevent 99.9% of Americans from recognizing the kleptocratic nature of the regime to which they are subject. Most importantly of all, they desperately want to avoid any significant change where “opinion leaders” in the top 20% start to identify more with the downtrodden 80% than they do with the “successful” psychopaths currently on top of our system.

      I’m cautiously optimistic that this transition can happen. The mantle off bourgeois respectability has been torn off the most predatory forces in Wall St. and D.C. Even academics from a bastion of upper-class white privilege, like Princeton University, have acknowledged that our system is far more oligarchic than democratic. https://wws.princeton.edu/news-and-events/news/item/princeton-study-us-no-longer-actual-democracy

      My cautious optimism stems from what happened after the Triangle factory fire in 1911. It took decades, but eventually a New Deal emerged for working people in the U.S. Then, like now, the working classes seized the moment– of at least tepid moral support from some of the bourgeoisie– to launch the most successful
      generation of worker organizing in U.S. history. At a speech given at the Metropolitan Opera house just after the fire, Rose Schneiderman, a socialist, pointed out then what is still very true today– the upper classes won’t ever do much for the working classes, the working classes have to organize and form their own bases of power:

      “I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting…. We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable, the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.

      Public officials have only words of warning to us—warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.

      I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

      1. Left in Wisconsin

        I’m not sure how precisely we can take your analogy. At the time of Triangle, there was already a vibrant if small left-wing culture in most American cities that had a very clear program for change. I don’t see any current substitute for either the fire or the radical opposition.

        Also, it is easy to draw a straight line from worker immiseration to New Deal change, but that is misleading. To take just one example, one thing many miss re: how New Deal change came about is that it wasn’t led by the immiserated working class. Both the craft and industrial unions were led by skilled trades workers who had no fear of taking on the bosses because they knew they had valuable skills that the employers could not do without. The Reuther brothers spent something like 22 months touring Russia, came back to the US when the labor strife started, and had no trouble getting immediately hired into the factories. As much as the owner class hated lefties, they loved profits even more. Also, industrial unionism worked because those with market power (in this case skilled trades workers) acted in solidarity with others who had no market power.

        In terms of contemporary market power, the only analogy I can make to today is computer coders. But if you read this blog, you will much evidence of how bad things are: the workers themselves are entirely atomized and as far as I can tell without politics. Even so, it is instructive to see the lengths that Silicon Valley has gone to to make sure no class consciousness emerges among them.

          1. Left in Wisconsin

            No CIO til 1935, after the first mass wave of organizing. But the larger point was that it wasn’t just protest. Control of skilled labor was key, as was the fact that those with labor market power used it for the benefit of their fellow workers. Don’t see that idea around much today.

      2. Doug Terpstra

        As Steve Fraser says, no one in 1932 foresaw the dramatic progressive mobilization of 1934. No one knows where the tipping point comes, but I suspect the next crisis, internal or external is close, probably before the end of Barack Hebert Hoover’s regime.

        1. Ulysses

          The wonderful thing about history is that it never repeats itself, and that it always repeats itself. No two empires collapse in exactly the same fashion. No two major uprisings against obscenely wealthy, lazy, and incompetent elites arise in exactly the same fashion either. Yet all empires will eventually fall, and elites who have reached the same absurd level of arrogance, greed, and incompetence– as the Davos crowd in the early 21st century– will never hold on to their power for long.

  3. Nikos

    I will repeat what I have said some weeks ago.Like it or not.

    With out a competent.organised “left movement” (not party) you can´t do anything.I have the strong impression that the “leftists” in the US are mostly upper middle-class folks.People who enjoyed a good education.The same can be said about the “left” in the UK or germany etc.There are not many “leftitsts” from the “working class” (or call it how ever you like).

    None of these people REALLY knows what it means to live in fear.To live from food stamps because the part time work does not really help.There is no real “grass roots movement”.This is the main problem.

    These “middle class leftists” do not see really the mess around them.Because they live in wealthy countries and do not go into areas where the food stampers life their live and struggle for the basic things of surviving.These “middle class leftisis” discovered their leftists blogs and read about the mess in southern europe,in southern america etc but will not know the reality in their own countries (like the USA,germany,UK etc).They will read their news and come to the conclusion that the situation in the US or germany is “way better” than in the “PIGS”-zone.And so they will wait for the “revolution” over there while no one will organize the resistance in the US or UK.

    Talking to a typical “middle class leftist” from the US,germany or the UK and asking them about the 50 million food stampers in the USA or the half million homeless in germany they will tell you something like “well,I know the US is no paradise but…”

    And this is where the disussion will stop.

    If you are a nation of 350 million and 50 million out of them do not have the means to feed them selves..no it is not just “no paradise” but you are in deep shit.Bankrupt to the bone and only one step away from the complete catastrophe.The abyss.Not better than any PIGS.This is 1929-1945 all over again.

    The difference is that the folks in the PIGS-zone are already on the streets.Since years.Allthough all of them (except maybe spain) already have what the middle (and lower class) class folks in the USA and UK tried till 2008:Building their own home to have something for “difficult times to come”.

    If you call yourself a educated,open minded “leftist leaning” person THE TIME IS NOW.What needs to be done in the USA,germany,UK,france etc is the same what the leftists have always done in the PIGS-zone:Bringing millions of people (peacefully) on the streets.If you can´t achieve this everything is lost.All talk is futile.


    1. Beli Tsari

      True that! The various ‘postwar’ social movements, did not include (the then majority) white labor, who fought to maintain their place in bosses’ status-quo. Petit bourgeois kids co-opted pretty much all that was left with media only covering stories aimed at their sponsers’ target demographic. Then one day: http://law.wlu.edu/powellarchives/page.asp?pageid=1251

    2. Banger

      I don’t know about the UK or Germany but in the USA the poor and working class identify with the ruling class. The basis of our culture is to pursue fantasies. We want illusions, we want to deny reality and choose a “better” version where our urges can be satisfied. Those urges and fantasies are met by the corporate State and thus win the loyalty of the masses. The vast majority of the American public will always choose the “blue pill” thus, in my view, there is no chance of major change or reform in conventional terms unless the culture changes rather drastically–which could happen–I don’t think this state of affairs is sustainable.

      1. washunate

        Banger, what does that have to do with the ‘poor and working class’? I think you’re describing the more affluent parts of America – exactly what Nikos commented on.

        Educated upper middle class America still has plenty of power at its disposal to keep the lower classes in line. The very fact that this power is needed demonstrates that the lower classes are not on board voluntarily.

        1. Banger

          The working class seems uninterested in the issue of income inequality–but much more interested in those below them on the pecking order as well as the usual whipping boy for the American working class, the left-wing intellectuals. They do identify with the oligarchs as long as they don’t appear to intellectual.

    3. Demeter

      America is a continent, and aside from a few metro areas, dispersed. Furthermore, even the metro areas are dispersed, broken into smaller units and managed independently.

      There is no “street” that we can all assemble upon–except the Internet!

      That is why the Elites hate it so much and want to strangle it.

    4. Left in Wisconsin

      Millions of people to the streets to demand what?

      There are two kinds of protest: misery-led protest that aims to preserve what little can be saved from a dying system (sometimes cathartic but always easily crushed) and future-driven protest that aims to achieve a new world in the future and has some motivating idea how. (Some sociologists call the first “Polanyi-an” and the second “Marx-ian,” though I’m not sold on that terminology myself.) The second kind is very dangerous, can’t be effected by people in their spare time (no matter how good hearted), and to succeed requires people to pick the side that every in authority opposes.

      We had a glimpse of this kind of protest in Wisconsin in 2011 and it was amazing. But ultimately it was only a small group that was radicalized (witness WI election results since then). Even most of the public school teachers that walked off the job for a week did so because they knew there would be few if any consequences. This will most assuredly not be the case with future protests if they suggest a real threat to the system.

      Most liberals here, including I think most teachers, hate the division that has occurred in the state and want nothing more than to get mainstream D’s elected and go back to their previous lives.

  4. Faye Carr

    I am a community organizer. But no longer organizing around political or social justice’ issues. Because they do not work. Every reason you can think of for citizens NOT organizing is correct.

    What is working, surprisingly, is getting people together for mutual support & survival. Food production,skill sharing, barter & trade. Labor pooling, education & transportation. Just about every political activist in our area has turned towards this work.I’m actually a bit overwhelmed at the amount of active participation and willingness of so many experienced people seeking to share in and lead this effort.

    We have tried everything, short of violence to effect change in our slarger society and our own lives to no avail.
    So we’ll do this. At least we’ll get by.

    1. guest

      I suspect that what you observe is at least partly linked to the deep need for people to do something meaningful.

      Toiling away in a corporation that is only interested in a quick buck, despises the natural preference for a “job well-done”, and treats its employees as interchangeable resources? Not meaningful.

      Trying to push reforms or fighting an injust situation a corrupt, hostile and ossified political system, controlled by lobbies and run by cynical apparatchiks? Not meaningful.

      Repairing the bike of your neighbors, teaching them a foreign language, exchanging the produce of your vegetable garden, tutoring children in maths? Meaningful and the deep satisfaction to perform an activity that is useful.

    2. flora

      This is interesting.
      “getting people together for mutual support & survival. Food production,skill sharing, barter & trade. Labor pooling, education & transportation.”
      All these are empowering. It runs counter to the official narrative that ‘you’re on your own, you’re powerless, there’s nothing you can do together that makes any difference’.

      1. sufferin' succotash

        It’s empowering, it’s necessary if for no other reason to keep people alive, but it’s not sufficient,
        At some point you run headlong into the fact that there’s only so much that mutual communal aid can do without bringing the State in. Added to that is the fact that the State–the “executive committee of the capitalist class”–won’t simply sit by and watch these movements grow within the increasingly rotten shell of the existing order. They would have to be smashed, precisely because by their very existence they rebut the official narrative, which is basically a series of variations on the theme of TINA.
        Mutual aid and conventional political action aren’t mutually exclusive; on the contrary they can be made to complement each other very effectively. The limitations of politics can raise public awareness of the need for mutual aid while the limitations of mutual aid can raise awareness of the need for political activity. What it comes down to is this: if the “Left” is going to get anywhere it has to move concertedly on both fronts–thinking strategically is not a vice.

        1. Faye Carr

          We are well aware of the “state” and their power to smash us. We routinely discuss the issue and have notification systems in place -just in case- including media contacts, and legal support. Making the decision to hide in plain sight.

          In the meantime… we are getting metaphoric Shovels in the Ground in all areas of resiliency.

          The political and social justice work still goes on, as a component, but not the primary focus.
          We call it “cross pollination”

          My personal tag line is: Come the revolution, I’ll bring the eats!

    3. Banger

      This is precisely what I and a couple of other people have been urging here. The political process is hopeless–the old Republic is dead and the system is rigged for the oligarchs. The unofficial “social-movement” type of politics is also dead because we live in a culture that values narcissism above all else even wealth. A minority of people are looking for alternatives and providing community and practical solutions to the problems of shelter, work, food and so on make sense in a world dominated by intellectual confusion and chaos. As I mentioned above, the majority of the American public is happy as long as there is some semblance of a “blue pill” to take.

      1. Left in Wisconsin

        The political process is only hopeless til it’s not. Every episode of real social change that I know of was preceded by decades of apparently futile protest against a system that could not be change, until it did. The current system is not performing well even by its own standards, does not I believe represent a worldview or moral code that most people support, and survives on a combination of inertia, fear/absence of hope and capitalist class solidarity.

        It might help if progressive D’s would point this out occasionally. The fact that they don’t suggests to me that they are unlikely to lead us anywhere good. (For example, the leadership of American organized labor is as progressive as it’s ever been, yet nevertheless has no ideas or strategy for improving most people’s lives, and when challenged to either defend the old system or embrace fundamental social change will inevitably opt for the former – lesser of 2 evils and all.) Nevertheless, I think it is very short-sighted to surrender the D party apparatus to them and try to build a movement from a third party or no party. We need to inside/outside them: get as many institutional resources from them as we can (from the unions too) while making clear we refuse to support the status quo.

        I know this sounds a little like Working Families and I know many observers here don’t have good things to say about them. But I think, as one strategy among many, it offers a good learning opportunity. The struggle is going to be long and painful, with lots of failures before many victories, and we should try everything and anything to see what might help going forward.

        1. Banger

          Certainly what you say makes sense–but the culture is not there. Most people aren’t interested in participating in the political process and, if you think about it, you can grasp this–too much information and even more disinformation and thus evaluating anything or even discussing anything is an exercise in confusion. Back in the day issues were clearer—the propaganda was not as clinically engineered as it is now.

        2. Ulysses

          I have a lot of respect for your point of view, which is pretty close to that of our dear, late friend Tim Carpenter, who worked so hard to build up the PDA into an organization with an “inside/outside” strategy. Yet by 2012 it had become clear to me that what we really need is an “outside/way outside” strategy.

          Both the Ds and Rs have so thoroughly betrayed working people in America that it is absurd to expect any meaningful reforms from within this duopoly. In other words, we should no longer accept the need to remain “viable within the system” as an excuse for our so-called friends to sell us down the river. The NRA doesn’t ever support anyone who isn’t firmly, 100% committed to their issues. Why should a union member ever dream of voting for, much less knocking doors for, someone who belongs to a party that chose to hold their convention at a non-union hotel, in a “right-to-work-for-less” state, in the city that Bank of America calls home?

          This continued pretense- that the Ds are in any way less oligarch-friendly than the Rs– should have been dropped a generation ago, and is now causing an intensity of cognitive dissonance that is unbearable!

    4. katenka

      YES, this!!! This is what we have been doing (in a small way so far, hoping to do more in the coming year) in my neighborhood. Many, many other issues aside, people like (need) to feel connected and competent, and we do not get many opportunities for such in the status quo system.

    5. Demeter

      Survival is exactly the place to start.

      Once people can be certain that they and their families will survive, they can work on somewhat larger issues, and literally rebuild a marketplace that actually meets their needs, which in turn rebuilds local politics, and makes a grassroots.

      1. jrs

        But it’s very hard to sever survival from the mainstream economy. You can’t pay the rent in barter, you can pay it with dollars earned under the table, if you are successful enough at that. Can you pay the doctors or hospital bill in barter? Not usually. Food production takes land whose rent you can’t pay in barter usually, and time which earning the money for rent won’t allow.

        I agree these ideas have potential, but quite frankly I view them as a middle class and bohemian playground at present, and yes that’s mostly the crowd they attract, if not always people who do well financial currently but they don’t even attract anyone from a working class or poor background. They need to get a lot more down to the brass tacks if they are going to work.

        1. jrs

          I’ve mostly spent enough time in such movements to regard it as another fantasy. Period. Sorry. It needs to play for higher stakes.

          However I think it is a fantasy that meets deep human needs that aren’t currently being met, in a way that Madison avenue will never meet and cant’ even promise, and if one could change the world by making individuals more deeply fulfilled, then it’s a start. It’s also a start in a different way of thinking which can I think help break up the mind control.

          1. Ulysses

            “It’s also a start in a different way of thinking which can I think help break up the mind control.”

            Absolutely! There is little likelihood that we can construct a fully viable alternative economy completely “under the radar” of the kleptocratic regime. Diptherio has pointed out how even much of what passes for “cooperative” businesses in the U.S. today are actually progressive-looking fronts used by large for-profit conglomerates– looking for a way to get into the wallets of people who delude themselves into thinking that they are “opting out” of the “system.”

            What these alternatives can best do is demolish TINA mind-traps that disempower those exploited, abused, or neglected in our current system. They can help give people the courage to take the tremendous risks necessary to successfully topple the existing power-structure, and begin the hard work of governing themselves and building a better world

        2. Faye Carr

          So true. We all still need cash to keep the lights on. Our community isn’t even close to a fuul on barter/trade requirement. The stated purpose is to practice this system. Explore alternatives. Barter/trade is a lost skill set. We trade for greenbacks. It’s how my small place pays for itself. Profit is encouraged,. Obscene and exploitive profit is shunned.

    6. NoFreeWill

      Perhaps you should try violence when everything else does not work. MLK had the Black Panthers, labor unions had the threat of communist revolution, today we have nobody (in a country with laughable gun control) willing to put a threat out to the left of us, why is it surprising that nothing gets accomplished? Not that todays police state isn’t much more sophisticated and terrifying than that of the past…

      1. TheraP

        Here’s the wrinkle in you suggestion. The only type of violence that seems to succeed today is of the lone (probably crazy) wolf sort. I’m referring to this here society.

        And the alternative that you suggest? Once you start trying to organize a movement with violent aims, you will very soon be in the crosshairs of all sorts of surveillance and infiltration. Does being naked in solitary sound enticing? It may be in store for you.

        Plus, if you turn to violence, you become what you’re trying to overcome.

        Maybe we need a Ghandhi or Martin Luthor King. To urge non-violent non-cooperation. Violence is not the way.

        1. art guerrilla

          i will only say that the ‘threat’ the powers that be see from mass movements, is NOT that they are oh-so-moral and non-violent, but that there is the POTENTIAL for a mass uprising…
          The They ™ could care less (in fact, are all for it) that sheeple are chewing their cud in the street, bleating and crying… the lamentations of ‘their enemies’ is music to those psychopath’s ears…
          again, The They ™ don’t give a shit that peaceful protesters are in the streets, they are afraid the sheeple will wake up and -JUSTIFIABLY and RIGHTEOUSLY- bare their fangs and start holding necktie parties for all our superior masters of the universe…
          *THAT* is the next step they are afraid of: when the sheeple own that power NEVER devolves voluntarily by asking nice…

  5. EoinW

    Are we the victims of our own success? Fear is the key element and it’s fear of losing what we have. Our material wealth today would have been incomprehensible a century ago. We’re not growing up as child labourers or working in sweat shops. 100 years ago people had less to lose. We live in a society where it seems that everyone – except me – has a cell phone. Holy overkill!

    Yes it’s very correct that there is no sense of community any longer. Blame that on television and the horseless carriage. How many people actually work in their own communities any longer? We have Tuesday night band concerts in the park in summer. They do draw a couple of hundred people but 90% of them are older than me. A quaint nostalgic exercise?

    Also blame Unions. There is some truth to the idea they went from serving the workers to serving themselves. The thing is, as a unionized worker – and I was never given a choice in the matter – it’s very clear to see the thousands of dollars that go to union dues but less clear what benefits I get in return. In fact my union, perhaps many others, bend over backwards to get along with the company. We even have employee bag checks where I work. Not a peep of protest from the union. Over a century ago Unions came from nothing to look out for the workers. I’m afraid they’re now part of the corporate structure and need to return to nothing so we can eventually start over again.

    Finally, how long has the Nanny State been in fashion? In the past people were more self sufficient. Today we’ve the illusion of being free agents to replace the reality. If people see government as a force for good then they’ll naturally welcome more government. Even happily let governments take responsibility for everything. In Canada it’s a strong social safety net. Doesn’t matter that government has been stripping away that net as quickly as they can, people will still cling to the fantasy of Good government. I guess because they’ve no fantasy to replace it with.

    Unlike those who lived before, we are a very spoiled society. Unfortunately there’s a cost for such luxury. We’re certainly paying for it.

    1. Cynthia

      In the workplace across all sectors of the economy, public as well as private, more and more money and power is being shifted to management and away from labor. This is happening because management has come to be viewed as nothing but an extension of capital. With the corporatization of healthcare, you are already starting to see this happen within large hospital systems. Hospital administrators are now being paid more than the top hospital surgeons — something that was totally unheard of just a few years ago. Some will argue that this wouldn’t be so had surgeons not become hospital employees. But this argument won’t go far because the same thing can be said about hospital administrators: they too are hospital employees. It’s rather arbitrary and thus illogical as to why hospital management is viewed as an extension of capital, while hospital surgeons are viewed as a labor cost. If anything, it should be the other way around. Unlike hospital management, hospital surgeons bring in money to the hospital, making them a natural extension of capital. Before you accuse me of being a Marxist, please hear me out.

      Let me start by stating the obvious: people in management draw a paycheck from their employer just like those in the labor force do. In other words, those in management are working stiffs just like people in the labor force are. The only exception to this are the people in management who own the company outright or have controlling shares of the company, but the vast majority don’t.

      The common thread here seems to be the corporatization of the workplace. We can’t do much about undoing corporations, they are here to stay, but we can change corporate culture and how we view everyone who works for corporations, from the CEO on down. If we don’t, one of two things is going to happen, both of which are detrimental: 1) labor rebels and management responds by installing a militarized police force within the workplace or 2) management becomes so clueless as to how their products are made or how their services are delivered that they drive their company into the ground. I prefer the second outcome. That way labor can step in and take over management. Then they can put management on a more level playing field with labor, saving the company a lot of money. Or, they can simply turn management into an obedient robot, saving the company even more money.

      1. Left in Wisconsin

        Good point. One of the most devastating early New Deal decisions was getting virtually all supervisors classified as “management” and thus on the other side from the working people they supervise. Not only does this keep considerable expertise out of the unions. It also leads to an ideological discourse that aligns middle management with the capitalist class whose interests they most assuredly do not share. It’s rare now to encounter a middle manager who isn’t anti-union deep into her/his fibre. Most of the European unions are not similarly hamstrung. In Sweden, I believe most middle managers are union members and identify with the left-ish party. (Not that Sweden doesn’t have its own problems but they are higher order problems than we face.)

    2. not_me

      In the past people were more self sufficient.

      Because they had family farms and businesses. The government-backed credit cartel and the so-called creditworthy have stolen those.

      Stop blaming the victims.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        The debtcopper system in the South, after the Civil War, did not depend on government backed credit. But it still managed to reduce small framers to near slavery.

        1. art guerrilla

          will touch on this only tangentially, in that present korporate farming practices (perhaps framing as well) DOES need to be ‘re-distributed’ such that we don’t have poo lagoons of offal from tens of thousands of pigs/chickens/cows/etc in one factory-farm location…
          what used to be -on a ‘human’/humane scale- golden opportunities in recycling and enriching the soil, etc, have become -on an industrial farming scale- toxic waste problems which are *not* amenable to traditional/green methods, and are counter to a hierarchy of livestock utilization which promotes cyclical, sustainable, distributed raising of livestock, pasture, crops, etc…
          we have to overturn this korporate farming Empire ONLY propped up by so-called cheap energy (and expensive wars), and replace it with sustainable systems which don’t concentrate livestock and crops unnaturally, etc…

        2. not_me

          Implicit government backing for the banks has existed in the US from the beginning at the Federal level since the monetary sovereign, the Federal Government, failed to provide a risk-free storage and transaction service for its fiat for all citizens leaving that, such as it was, to the tender mercies of private banks. And the States themselves often treated the banks with deference by, for example, suspending species redemption during panics.

          Banks REQUIRE government privilege to exist to any large extent. They should either be 100% private in which case they could cause little damage or 100% public but the latter is bound to violate equal protection under the law if the government engages in any lending or borrowing.

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            Huh?v Please explain the Panic of 1907, where J.P. Morgan organized the rescue, or the widespread bank failures of the Great Depression. My maternal grandparents lost all their savings in two banks, and got back three cents on the dollar from the third.

  6. Wade Riddick

    It takes significant capital expenditures to connect with these atomized people. They just spent $100 million easily in one North Carolina Senate race. It’s easier to get a handful of connected interests to pool money for this kind of effort than it is to get millions of people with vague interests (Olsen’s _Logic of Collective Action_). So right off there’s an asymmetric bias in your bargaining problem.

    All that money is under the control of cartels. Do you expect them to spend against their interests?

    Where do you expect the money for organization to come from? All interests need leadership and have to be organized. They don’t just organize themselves. This takes money. It takes manpower. It takes vision. It takes leaders – and followers. (The nouveau teepee hippies of the Occupy Wall Street movement cringe when they hear this; it totally gets in the way of their attempt to channel Abbie Hoffman and levitate the Pentagon with their magical mother earth powers.)

    Organization costs money and by atomizing like-minded individuals – and then bidding up the cost of mass-media advertizing – right wing interests have raised the barriers to linking these people together. Before you say, “But social media” this and “Social media that” – think about who owns this “social media.” It’s yet another advertizing platform.

    If you get something for free, you aren’t the customer; you’re the product being sold. Corporate news doesn’t serve the viewer; it serves the advertiser. They are selling us, the viewer, to their customer, the advertiser. This is why the news never criticizes its true customers. No news outlet is going to call for the prosecution of its chief customers like banksters. No one’s going to point out that customers ultimately pay for corporate lobbying bills and campaign donations (our wallets, after all, are the source of all corporate profits from which their “speech” derives). In political economy terms, both the press and the politicians are getting a cut of the take as a form of protection payments from bad press and prosecution, respectively.

    It’s this basic power imbalance that strips rights away from people. Laws aren’t written fairly; they’re written by lobbyists to serve their own interests. Judges are then bent by money. Either way you lose. Rights really don’t exist if you don’t have a power you can rely on to enforce them like the courts or parties.1 Victims have to be organized. We don’t do it ourselves.

    Attacking the means of providing information also helps to preserve the illusion of free will. Taint the options people get by flooding the zone with false information and you can control the decision most people make – hence the reason Republicans spend so much money lying. It’s all the better when people control themselves for you. (“Get your Goddamn government hands off my Medicare!”) It’s an attack on the public utility function of elections to educate voters about their choices. It’s in the same mold of all the other attacks by rent-seekers on public goods provided by government – charter schools skimming off the school budgets, national security contractors looking at our naked webcam photos, private jails lobbying to fill their beds. The list goes on and on. This is the shock doctrine of Naomi Klein. Now the parties have been abolished and fundraising flows through a separate set of skimmers who aren’t interested in running the government – they aren’t even necessarily interested in winning elections, just as long as they can keep raising money.

    Corporations get to have rights – after all, the Supreme Court has ruled they are people too (in direct contradiction to the advice Madison gives us in “Federalist #10.”) People, on the other hand, don’t have rights. The supposed scions of market liberty have become peculiar shills for a new kind of communism – corporate communism. In this version, only companies get to have enforceable private property rights.

    This pluralist system (do not confuse this with republican democracy) relies on large competing groups to counterbalance one another. But there’s one problem with that. This is the first long period in American history when Southern racists, extractive commodities industries (agriculture, oil, mining), financial cartels and organized “religion” (i.e., the Pharisee vote) have all been organized into the same party. Republicans may not have the numbers, but they certainly have the money to pull all the other levers. Do not underestimate this advantage. At the very least, this flood of stolen money is enough to stop most Democratic politicians from running as actual Democrats.

    1. Witness the absurd discussion we’re having about licensing voting – which is about the most fundamental and unlicensable right we have. Marriage, on the other hand, is like opening up a corporation or driving a car: it requires a license. Yet poor black people (often with a criminal record) don’t have anybody to speak for them in the press like rich, irate gay people do. Why do none of the voting rights critics run around accusing the Republicans of trying to license religion and speech next? If you can license voting you can license any lesser right too. They don’t do it because they’re paid heads of pluralist interest groups and they’re not interested in looking out over the entire landscape of threats to justice in the American republic. They would probably balk at any true reforms because it would bite into their media/lobbying salaries.

    1. Banger

      Good points. Let’s just put it simply–the system is rigged and is not what it claims to be. We live in a inverted totalitarian state that has little relationship to the state that was designed by the Constitution. As you point out, the elites have managed to ally the yeomancy, (i.e., the uneducated, superstitious and nativist part of the middle class who regard themselves as the “salt of the earth” and foundation of society) and the oligarchs under one party through a variety of very clever series of political tricks. But, in fact, this alliance is not necessary. The American public is so befuddled by, as you say, a blizzard of “information” that there is no way anyone has time to sort through this flood of words and images to arrive at anything sensible thus reason and common sense have been abandoned for a world where we seek escape and fantasy and this is true for all classes of people. Through a number of accidental circumstances I’ve been able to interact with all social classes in the past decade or so and can assure you that the vast majority of people have lost touch with reality except in some very narrow aspects of their personal life.

    2. Left in Wisconsin

      This is almost entirely true yet meaningfully incorrect. Just looking at unions, one sees that almost all of the time, union organization is hard, slow, expensive, unrewarding work. You often hear these days that it costs $1000 to organize one union member. Yet if one looks historically, in almost every case union movements have organized spontaneously over a very short period of time, completely overwhelming the existing union apparatus, and making every mistake in the organizing book and yet succeeding anyway.

      In the US case, the early organizing surge of 1933-34 completely overwhelmed existing union organization (the AFL literally ran out of membership cards early in 1933) and the AFL did the only thing it could – put the new members into new, geographically-based federal labor unions (FLU’s) outside the existing union apparatus until they could figure out where to permanently house them. Not only that – almost all of these FLUs collapse in 1934 when employers refused to bargain with them. Then, after the Wagner Act in 1935, working people did it again. The industrial unions at least had a framework by this time but still virtually no staff or organizing apparatus.

      Then, coolest of all, they spent the next decade or so beating the crap out of their fellow unionists over political strategy (exactly what today’s union leadership refuses to tolerate) and ended up considerably the stronger for it.

      1. sd

        Labor as a force for change: One of the big problems that I see today is understanding what Labor is. It was very easy to identify and organize workers in the past because workers could clearly see themselves as Labor. The factory worker, the construction worker, the dock worker, they could see themselves as Labor. But today, how many office workers actually see themselves as Labor, does a computer programmer see themselves as Labor? White collar service workers see themselves as better than “Labor” and align with management thus they do not see themselves as Labor. Add to that an increasingly freelance work pool and it makes for a very difficult environment in which to rally workers.

        So it seems like the first baby step, is helping people to understand if they don’t own the shop, they are Labor.

  7. Northeaster

    The business press in particular. Infatuated with these people.

    Advertising revenues?

    The industry certainly has its defenders as well. I was recently told that Glass-Steagal wasn’t really a big deal:

    “Unless you work in Insurance or Banking I will take issue with you on Glass Stegal. I have been in the securities and insurance field for 27 years. The global forces of banking and Insurance was the issue Sandy just capitalized on it.”

  8. gardener1

    But some of us have noticed and we are fighting back. They just haven’t acknowledged some of the methods people are using to get out from under.

    But perhaps they are looking for all the wrong markers, like rioting in the streets and Detroit 1967 style neighborhood burnings.

    People are protesting in a different way now, and they’d be smart to recognize that, but it doesn’t look like they have.

    There are a lot more people homeschooling children, removing them from they system at an early age. Young people are staying away from the car market and driving – they can hardly give cars away, 0% interest 0 down 0 payments for a year and still can’t sell them. People are scaling down and refusing to take on more debt for shitteous consumer goods, look at how very bad Christmas numbers have been for the last five years.

    The tiny house thing. We always lived in small houses, but it wasn’t a social movement then. It is now. Good luck selling your McMansion to a millennial who has no credit score and no car.

    Trust me, there are plenty of Americans making money under the table, cash payment. If you’re not financing cars and houses and debt – you don’t give a damn what your credit score is. Greenbacks still buy food and pay the rent.

    There are an increasing number of medical professionals who refuse to take insurance. For normal usual maladies you can just show up, pay cash, and be treated. The fees are affordable because all the money sucking middlemen have been eliminated from the process.

    People are opting out of the system in droves. Hard to believe they are not recognizing it.

    1. ambrit

      There is a downside to opting out of the new panopticon. Briefly, humankind has made incredible strides recently in improving the quality of life; medicine, sanitation, power to do things people had to do themselves, sheer leisure time. That last is the kicker. Some old Greek once remarked that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Well, the Jury gave him hemlock back then. Today, the Elites give us, oh, tons of stuff that is comprised of almost universally corrupt versions of otherwise public goods. So, there you have it. Opting out comes at a price. As the Elites improve their game, we’ll see greater and greater costs associated with that ‘removal.’ Coming to terms with the new balance will be each individuals task. Protecting the individuals right to make that choice is the collectives duty.

    2. Light a Candle

      Interesting comment. I agree, people are opting out.

      I think a lot of regular people are way smarter than the elites who govern us, who fleece us, and who are driving the world to environmental collapse.

  9. Uahsenaa

    Early advertising in the US and psychoanalysis are intimately linked, after all Edward Bernays was Freud’s nephew, and Eddy used his connections to Freud in order to establish his reputation.

    The connection between desires and images (at least as Interpretation of Dreams has it) is incredibly complex, and the objects of one’s dreams and fantasies, supposedly, do not at all resemble the desires that underlie them. Ergo, wacky imagery in advertising.

  10. J-Ho

    I don’t necessarily think that it’s a function of people being any more or less stupid or apathetic than they’ve ever been, that’s a fairly naive sentiment and it tends to glorify a past which there is no evidence to believe ever really existed. My grandparents were no fools, but they weren’t the most well-informed or worldly people either and they were fairly typical of your rural midwestern farming types.

    I’d also argue that many people in the lower and working classes hold ideas that many of your stereotypical upper middle class progressives find uncomfortably radical. We tend not to view the working class as very “leftist” because they don’t usually don’t have the time or means to show it (particularly after they’ve started families). Also because they don’t vote, and what’s the point for them anyways?

    Speaking from my perspective as a 33 year old, I’d say the problem with my generation is our high level of atomization. We were raised on a steady diet of neoliberal philosophy (which although many of us didn’t swallow, it did point us more towards anarchism than socialism) and Gen X irony. And then of course as we went out into the world we were failed, fleeced or outright repulsed by the actions of just about any institution we encountered. To wit, we tend not to be the easiest people to mobilize into collective action.

    All that having been said, people my age LOVE to throw cogs in the machine (see: the recent die-ins, the massive protests in WI following Scott Walker’s Act 10) and we love mass, participatory and consensus based action. Really, those are things people innately enjoy across the board. I believe if we can build those kinds of movements and groups, we can see more people get involved and meaningful changes happening. The problem is that those movements are not easy to build and the knowledge of how to go about doing it isn’t easy to find or apprentice in…

  11. squasha

    your ‘free-agent’ myth may also be a way to separate one’s psyche from the rough, depressing throngs one encounters in the filthy waiting rooms on the lower rungs of the ladder. With so few surfaces in the environment reflecting any sort of dignity back to the sweaty by-product juggler, this resoled bootstrap Disney fairy will be hard to chuck out. The middles were never going to rise up, anymore than the helipad set, so there’s this head-scratching, finger-drumming impatience with the poor, why don’t they/we rise up? How much can/will they take of this? Look at african american history collated with those of the gilded age and new deal eras: they/we can take quite a lot of this indeed.

    1. jrs

      Also free agent may be a choiceless choice, if one is 50 something and can’t get a job job due to age discrimination and one manages to scrape something here and there from being a free agent well who can blame them, and they are the lucky one’s compared to those who can’t scrape anything together.

      [quote]The middles were never going to rise up[/quote]

      yes, I mean some of us might :). But as a class no it’s never ever ever getting back together, I mean gonna happen.

      1. AQ

        For all intents and purposes, I don’t believe there is a middle anymore but they/we refuse to give up the fantasy.

        ETA: Should’ve been more specific in saying the words middle class and working class. I don’t believe there’s a middle class although we refuse to let go of that dream phrase.

  12. MG

    Complex and difficult and there isn’t a straight forward and easy manner to respond unlike how labor movements in this country responded & organized in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Labor simply can’t do that in the 21st century largely due to globalization. Try organizing a private labor union that isn’t state sanctioned in Russia or China. Your be imprisoned and/or liquidated in short order. Also the other issue too that in large parts of the emerging world classic Judeo-Christian values about the individual values of a life simply aren’t shared.

    From my personal travels, India is probably the best example. I have seen more attention given to cows hit by cars/trucks than people who get hit. Not uncommon at all if you are driving outside of a large city and you hit someone at night crossing the road that you don’t even stop to slow down.

    People make some good points about the Internet/TV. Despite all of the focus you see on how the TV audience is fragmented, the point is that people have increased their time watching TV in the US since the recession began especially elderly (65 and older) people. Couple that with playing gmaes or Internet consumption and that is the overwhelming majority of Americans’ free time.


    American politicians know you need to keep gasoline readily available and the power on for the Internet/TV. As long as you do that, you can keep most of the masses in line. Amazing how prescient John Carpenter’s “They Live” (1988) has turned out to be on American culture in the 21st century so far.

  13. Jim

    If only it were true that contemporary times were like the Gilded Age. The Gilded Age (1870-1900) was the greatest period in world history of high economic growth, large increases in human welfare, and spectacular technological advances.

      1. Jim

        Between 1860 and 1900 the US economy grew at an average annualized rate of 4.4%. This despite the enormous destruction of the Civil War.

        1. guest

          Oh, and looking at the total GDP, the annual growth rate from 1860 to 1900 is 3.84% (not 4.4%). Comparable to Australia then, at 3.47%, substantially more than Canada at 2.99%, but much less than New Zealand at 6.38%.

          For another comparison, the annualized total GDP growth rate in Japan from 1937 (when full-scale war with China started) to 1977 was 5.44% — despite the enormous destruction of the Second World War.

          Looking at the usual economic indicators, the Gilded Age was not that impressive — but the myth persists.

  14. TG

    Good piece, but one quibble: “but we’ve seen how the protests against police brutality had in fact managed to shut down highways and make political statements through die-ins, so changed tactics could shift those dynamics.”

    This is a dangerous mistake. The protests against police brutality were scripted and approved by the elites – they LOVE the idea of blacks protesting the right to lynch a policeman who pretty clearly shot a thug who was assaulting him. Why are ALL of Al Sharpton’s major causes either seriously ambiguous or outright frauds? Why do the big corporations love Al Sharpton? Obviously he serves a purpose – if he made a big deal out of a clear injustice (and there are plenty of those) how could he troll blacks and whites into screaming at each other? Better that than blacks and whites marching together against bank bailouts stupid wars etc.

    If the elites had wanted the protests against police brutality quashed they would have done so just as efficiently as they quash protests against stupid wars and bank bailouts and illegal immigration etc. Censor it from the press so that it makes no political impact and does not go viral, and use the heavy-duty riot squads to clear the streets. If protests are ‘successful’, it’s only because, for whatever reason, the elite want them to occur. No, ‘tactics’ are not an issue here.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Huh? Most of the protests were mulit-racial and have bupkis to do with Sharpton. Sharpton is doing the classic version of how politicians are described in Venezuela: “Someone who gets in front of a mob and tries to call it a parade.”

  15. seabos84

    We’re in this Twilight Zone of a relatively affluent “left” which is bankrupt of ideas. They’re the people with the bit of coin and the bit of time to do something, and what do they come up with? Obama, Clinton and their sell out cla$$, cuz, ‘if the DFHs get in charge, we’ll scare the middle, and lose!’. Or, let’s all mobilize so we can go to a seminar-at-the-local-university on discussing the concept of thinking about possibly considering acting.
    I started my first long term union job, as a teacher, 10 years ago at age 44. Just like the Democratic Party, “organizing” is stuck in a 30′-50’s twilight zone – in the 30’s or before, how many zillions of us worked relatively close to home, so that pre and post work organizing wasn’t that difficult, relatively speaking? After WW2, how many zillions had FAMILY wage jobs which weren’t a zillion hours a week? We need to be organizing by where you live, by what you can stomach doing politically (if die-in ain’t your thing, what about well written analysis, or phone banking, or door knocking…) and finally by the issue or the candidate.
    Finally, with this internet thing – this is the first time in history that the author(s) of the community wrecking venal rule, or venal clause, or venal law, or venal regulation can be publicly identified & EVERYONE can know who are the selfish, lying scumbags. Instead of assembling to Kumbaya & hold hands & recreate Newport ’63 & sit open mouthed while Bob & Joan sing about action … we need to be in front of THE HOMES of the scumbags (peacefully!!!!)
    I’ve lived in Boston or Seattle for 33 of the last 37 years, as part of the serf cla$$ – while there are agitators who aren’t part of the non-let’s-not-scare-the-middle-or-we’ll-lose cla$$, they wanna spend their time closing down malls, or protesting in pigeon shit in the park – why would the average beat down know nobody working stiff smuck give a crap about that ?? Oh yeah – and how do you get tied in with the agitators … let’s have endless countless last minute life wasting MEETINGS!! If you’re an average smuck, you’re also smart enough to know that the pigeons didn’t f’k up your life, so who cares about protesting in a stupid park? You also are smart enough to know that if singing along with the latest Pete Seeger mattered, well, would things be such a mess? Where’s the incentive to jump up, other than you are so fed up you no longer care?
    We need different organizational models, and we need to focus our protests to those who merit accountability for their community wrecking venal thieving.


    1. Left in Wisconsin

      One point I haven’t seen made yet is how the contemporary “left” (ha-ha) is driven almost completely by foundations that are not in any way left. The unions have way fewer resources than they used to, and are mostly ever more beholden to preserving any shred of the dying 20th economy that employs their ever shrinking membership than trying to help make a new and better world.

      If you truly are interested in change, foundations are not your friend. (Perhaps there are exceptions that prove the rule but I am not aware of them.) Foundations believe in incremental change, controlling the agenda, etc. Furthermore, foundation-funded “leftists” (ha-ha) are totally bought into the liberal meritocratic world view, in which they claim to know best (even if that changes every time the foundation issues a new RFP). I encourage everyone to look at foundation job boards to see what skills and talents they promote. All individual achievement, workaholics preferred. Dedication to the movement, don’t you know.

      The struggle will be long and hard. When push comes to shove, liberals, progressives, meritocrats, foundations, and foundation-inspired think tanks will mostly come down on the wrong side.

    2. Left in Wisconsin

      You don’t have your historical union organizing right. As I said above, unions did not organize workers in the 1930s, mostly the workers spontaneously organized despite HUGE differences in worker background – most factory workforces spoke a dozen different languages and there was deep distrust of others with different ethnicity, language, religion, politics, etc.

      In the post-war period, there has been virtually no new organizing. Almost all union growth after Taft-Hartley in 1947 was employment growth in existing bargaining units, and virtually all new bargaining units organized were in sectors that were already heavily unionized. Public sector unions had to organize, kind of, but typically not over the opposition of management.

      1. seabos84

        ummm… whatever.
        How many of us work closely to where we work, today, compared to in the 30’s? I’m 54, I wasn’t alive then, so … the people organized themselves instead of the union organizing them … or … whatever. The 30’s had poverty which was unfathomable by today’s standards – maybe that helped whoever is supposed to get the organizing credit more than anything ;) ??

        Does is matter that we all agree exactly how it happened in the 30’s … the 30’s are gone. THE LESSON, to me, is that when people are ground under the heels of thieving pigs long enough and bad enough, then they might get together. Another lesson from history which is still going – organizing by savior or organizing by The Mission fizzles away – unless people are really really really ground into the dirt.

        I was a meeting in June of Seattle teacher … activists … 1 of the leaders suggested we read a book about organizing in the 30’s during the summer – instead of protesting outside of the homes of those in Seattle who make fat paychecks destroying public education. Why are we trying to recreate organizing which doesn’t work cuz people are tooo dispersed?

        We need to organize by local area, by what kind of campaign stuff you like the most / can stomach the most, and then by candidate / issue.


  16. dimmsdale

    While I agree with many of the arguments being made about why the middle class is apparently so passive against the forces that want to squeeze it dry, I have to say I’m not sure where the American middle class is supposed to get a working model of how things “could” be, or a sense of how things “could” be better. If you’re getting by, under our system, why would you be interested in changing it? If you’re not, you’re far too busy trying to survive, to have the excess energy to push for change, or even the intellectual energy to visualize it. There are fewer and fewer of us who remember life before Reagan, life before Fox News. Our model of the universe may very well include a sense of the common weal (if I’m using the term correctly) or a sense of common purpose–but it came to us through the transformative power of the New Deal, and through all the rhetoric that went with it, which lasted well into the 70s. There was also, in those days, a “responsible media,” cowed by the FCC (and fear of losing broadcast licenses) into keeping the airwaves free of the sort of scabrous, inflammatory, evil-fantasy-based, toxic hate speech Fox News and CNN (and even the so-called “major networks”) now glorify daily. Then, protest was seen as a way to get things done, and also, frankly, a hip thing to do–and one was surrounded by evidence that protest worked (desegregation, consumer-oriented corporations, environmental regulations etc.).

    Never before have American corporations had so much cash, which they use to corrupt our values. Media discourse, public discourse, local government, all have been corrupted by cash to an astonishing degree. They also keep us deliberately ignorant of ways other countries have solved Americans’ chronic gripes, with an almost mystical continual potion of fantasy. More than ever I am in awe of community activists, and the people who fund them, and the very few in politics who are willing to raise their voices, even though stumbling occasionally, who carry on with what I still regard as the good fight.

    NC is one of the few bastions of that good fight left; I am personally incredibly enriched by the caliber of thought that makes the site go, and of course that includes commenters too.

    (Ha–I did not start this comment with the idea of writing a plug for NC, but, well, there you go.)

    1. washunate

      If you’re getting by, under our system, why would you be interested in changing it? If you’re not, you’re far too busy trying to survive, to have the excess energy to push for change, or even the intellectual energy to visualize it.

      Great comment.

  17. lakewoebegoner

    “Why is No One Fighting the New Robber Barons?”

    Vespasian and the Romans had this figured out….bread and circuses.

    Cheap (though not as dirt cheap as before) food, kitten videos, porn, marijuana, MMAO inhibitors, etc.

    The trigger event for most major social awakenings were rooted severe, rapid food inflation, not something as relatively abstract and a slow-motion-train-wreck as today’s income inequality.

    1. sufferin' succotash

      I’ve always believed that if Weimar Germany had possessed cheap consumer electronics and high-fructose corn syrup in 1930 the Nazis would never have had a chance. The Germans would have been too busy waddling around texting to pay attention to someone named Hitler.

  18. Llewelyn Moss

    So we have a militarized, often brutal, Police State. The police showed us the price of carrying a protest sign, which is pepper-spray and a clubbing with night sticks (see OWS). That was your first and only warning free-speechers. The National Stasi Agency is doing pervasive surveillance of the citizens and collecting it all into a massive, searchable database in Nevada. And corporations run the US govt and the media (propaganda) outlets. corporations which have no allegiance to the citizens. The CIA “tortured some folks” because, in their own words, they were just following orders. The president wise cracks that “Turns out, I’m really good at killing people.” The exact same state of affairs did not end well in Chile when Pinochet took power.

    I love the references to IT as a dead-end career path. I spent 25 years in that industry until the CEOs figured out how to off-shore jobs. Now I could show you links to ‘freelance’ sites that dole out computer programming projects for $10-$15 an hour — that computer science degree is really shining now.

  19. TedWa

    Great show. We now have food stamps so that there’s no soup and bread lines everywhere – just at the local food bank and out of sight in most neighborhoods. The very visible ills of the Great Depression have been hidden by well-intentioned compassion that again benefits the rich by making these ills opaque to the general population, and there they are, alone and out of sight as the compassion that drove these benefits is being decimated. Food stamps are now used to hide a lot of ills of this economy, including subsidizing corporate profits and ensuring things don’t change as the economy for the lower 30% staggers along. Would bread and soup lines in the streets bring much needed change? It would certainly unite neighborhoods and cities as it did during the GD. The media certainly couldn’t ignore that much visible misery. TPTB learned a lot from the GD including many new ways to hide the nations shame.

    1. Llewelyn Moss

      Also interesting how some cities (ex Orlando FL) have now made it a criminal offense to feed the homeless out in the open. I assume it is intended to force the homeless to go “home”. As you state, Ferrel Humans don’t reinforce the propaganda that USA is #1.

      1. TedWa

        Yeah, they’re trying making it a crime to feed the homeless up here also – too visible for TPTB I’d guess. It’s all about perception rather than fact to them, and propaganda over people – just like there’s a growing population of the “unemployable”. Conveniently disregarding a large percentage of the population to make the jobless numbers look better.

      2. naked capitalism

        There are ways of fighting back. Organize boycotts of cities that bar feeding the homeless. When those cities start feeling the pain, they’ll repeal their ordinances.

  20. washunate

    I agree it’s an important question, but I think there actually are two rather straightforward answers.

    1) A lot of people are fighting the present system. That they have very little formal power and are mostly ignored by the establishment unless they break a specific taboo with which they can be smeared in no way says they aren’t fighting the system. Take one long look at the police state in our nation’s major cities and it’s ridiculous to claim nobody is fighting.

    2) The intellectual class – both ‘left’ and ‘right’ – is fully in support of the present system. Hospitals, universities, courts, prisons, law enforcement, media, financial regulators, etc. There are some rare exceptions that prove the general rule, which is that virtually everybody in the top 20% of the wage scale, and especially the top 10%, is in on the scam, either actively supporting the looting or willing to look the other way to protect outsized privileges for their own family. The fear of slipping down into life amongst the masses is very real. That’s the whole point of the inequality all up and down the wage scale – it keeps well-educated liberals in line. But this is also why things are changing despite how powerful the status quo superficially appears to be, because there is nothing left with which to buy off younger generations. In fact I think many affluent Boomers would be shocked how different culturally Millennials are from them.

    That is the reality of life in the US. It’s not just the billionaires. The technocrats under them have completely vacated any sense of moral obligation to or social identity with the broader American public. The upper middle class isn’t fighting the uber rich because they’re on the same side. We want to identify Evil Villains upon which to heap all the blame. But they don’t exist. We are where we are due to millions upon millions of small choices to not rock the boat.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      Great comment. Though I do think there are many intellectual liberals who would think about doing the right thing if they had any idea what that was. I think the delusion that most liberals are under is the belief that there can be opportunity for all if people would just be nice and do the right thing. Once you challenge them with the notion that there are not good jobs for everyone and can’t be without taking on the system, they tend to lose interest/heart.

      1. washunate

        I very much agree. I think the ‘looking the other way’ crowd is much larger than the psychopaths who actually like how things work. Which is both hopeful and sad.

  21. Working Class Nero

    This interview echoes what Will and Ariel Durant, who did a bird’s eye study of civilization, said on the subject of wealth concentration:

    We conclude that the concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable and is periodically alleviated by violent or peacable partial redistribution. In this view, all economic history is the slow heartbeat of the social organism, a vast systolic and diastole of concentrating wealth and compulsive recirculation.

    So the Gilded Age was the contracting, systolic movement of wealth concentrating — the New Deal and WW2 were the diastolic relaxations where wealth was temporarily and imperfectly allowed to flow back downwards towards the masses.

    Karl Polanyi expressed a similar notion (from Wiki)

    Polanyi attempted to turn the tables on the orthodox liberal account of the rise of capitalism by arguing that “laissez-faire was planned”, whereas social protectionism was a spontaneous reaction to the social dislocation imposed by an unrestrained free market. He argues that the construction of a “self-regulating” market necessitates the separation of society into economic and political realms. Polanyi does not deny that the self-regulating market has brought “unheard of material wealth”, but he suggests that this is too narrow a focus. The market, once it considers land, labor and money as “fictitious commodities” (fictitious because each possesses qualities that are not expressed in the formal rationality of the market), and including them “means to subordinate the substance of society itself to the laws of the market.”

    This, he argues, results in massive social dislocation, and spontaneous moves by society to protect itself. In effect, Polanyi argues that once the free market attempts to separate itself from the fabric of society, social protectionism is society’s natural response, which he calls the “double movement.” Polanyi did not see economics as a subject closed off from other fields of enquiry, indeed he saw economic and social problems as inherently linked. He ended his work with a prediction of a socialist society, noting, “after a century of blind ‘improvement’, man is restoring his ‘habitation.

    So as wealth contracts, the resulting social pressures increases and dynamic portions of society attempt to organize social protections. For example if globalization is seen as the problem then some will attempt a nationalist reaction. At some point this pressure becomes too for elites to contain and society explodes — undoubtedly along varying measures of both peaceful and violent lines. A wise elite would try to attenuate these historical tendencies. The current elites must be convinced they can avoid the inevitable fallout from the coming social explosion.

  22. guest

    Slashdot has featured regular articles of young IT grads desperate to find entry level jobs. The oldsters patiently confirm that they are pretty much gone. If computer professionals, supposedly one of those in demand, high skill career paths, can’t even get started in building a portfolio of marketable skills, how can they possibly go solo?

    I remember that this exact situation was discussed about a decade ago in the UK. The basic argument ran like this:

    1.The IT sector is a kind of pyramid of skills: at the bottom, people programming and testing software. With more skills, expert software engineers, designing and integrating complex systems. With even more experience, project managers. At the top, CIO.

    2. In the 1980s, the UK figured out that it could outsource those numerous low-level jobs (programming, testing) to India — at very advantageous rates. It ended up doing so massively. The idea was to get rid of the “low qualification” positions and keep the “highly qualified, value-adding” jobs like project manager, system architect, CIO, in the UK.

    3. Just like in every other profession, people start at the bottom and acquire experience and skills, and then those competent enough move on to the upper layer. Which means that entry-level positions are actually essential — it is the pool from which the future top-people will be drawn. By offshoring those entry-level jobs, the IT pyramid started to resemble a diamond.

    4. In the mid- to late noughties, it appeared that the UK was not capable of forming enough “highly qualified” jobs any longer. Old experienced project managers, software architects, etc were getting pensioned, but there was no younger generation to take their place. British firms started then to import that kind of — expensive — personnel from India and other countries…

  23. MG

    It is easy too to throw bombs and criticize society/people but how exactly should people organize. I’m just as guilty as anyone on that accord too and donate my time generally to either the local Habitat for Humanity or another religiously-affiliated group that does repairs for homeowners in need. Tangible, finite, local, and people in both cases who are receiving the aid have to do some form of sweat equity with the people who are donating their time.

    I have yet to hear a straightforward compelling issue that is easy distilled to 3 or 4 basic talking points and can rally a majority of Americans. Starting with gov’t-legislation as the answer is going to be a no-go with a significant percentage of the population right off the bat. Ditto that does anything to just help the poor like raising minimum wage even though I am a big fan of raising it to at least $9.50/hr over the next few years and then indexing it annually going ahead forward to the CPI.

    Personally, I would pick campaign contributions in politics. No offense to really meaning people like Lawrence Lessig and others but a much more militant-like and aggressive approach needs to be taken and organized. I am not advocating violence but ‘grass roots’ organizing and trying to get politicians who support it at the federal level at the outset is a fool’s errand. Even that I am dubious would work given what has occurred thus far in Greece and Spain but it would be a starting place than the apathy and silent depression we see today.

    Other part of this is that almost every Western society is devoting the lion’s share of its resources to its least productive members of society (65 and older). No one apparently really wants to have that conversation especially when it involves access to healthcare but it is a recipe for disaster. I don’t see it becoming an issue yet but by 2020 it is going to be the Boomers vs Gen X (my generation)/Gen Y.

    1. ambrit

      I would counter your last point with the observation that the lions share of resources is being devoted to the least productive members of society, the 0.01%. The provisions for the oldsters are the result of a social contract promulgated back in the 1930’s. Now the top predators want everything for themselves, and the only way to accomplish that is to break that social contract. You Gen-X, Y, and Zs have much more at stake than you realize. Things can get a whole lot worse than they are now. Just in time for your “retirement.”

      1. MG

        But those social contracts were made when the life spans and medical technology were completely different. SSI is fixable from an actuary standpoint as long as the train doesn’t go off the rails. It just requires each side to agree to some tough compromises which neither is willing to make because of the elderly vote block making up a 1/3 (or even more) in non-presidential years and huge numbers in primaries.

        Medicare/Medicaid (whose single biggest expense is assisted living facilities for the elderly) is much more challenging to control costs and every health care system in the world is grappling with how to afford to care for their elderly residents. US just unfortunately has a much higher cost basis to start which really puts us behind the 8-ball either further.

        Point stands though that the overwhelming majority of Medicare goes to those 75 and older and those with multiple comorbidities. No one is the US is willing to talk about cost efficiency in treatments and rationalize costs vs benefit because it devolves into ‘death panels’ and other emotional-filled ranting but at the end of the day there has to be some rationing of care.

        1. Athena1

          SSI is fixable from an actuary standpoint as long as the train doesn’t go off the rails. It just requires each side to agree to some tough compromises which neither is willing to make

          Or you could just raise the cap, and with Medicare, if we brought our overall healthcare costs in line with the rest of the developed world, we’d have a significant budget surplus.

          No one is the US is willing to talk about cost efficiency in treatments and rationalize costs vs benefit because it devolves into ‘death panels’ and other emotional-filled ranting but at the end of the day there has to be some rationing of care.

          Agreed, but it’s quite possible to ration in ways where most people will never hit the upper limit of costs and be subject to any noticeable rationing. We’re already covertly and sometimes quite overtly rationing, by the way.

          1. Left in Wisconsin

            Or get rid of the cap entirely, tax carried interest as income for FICA, and exempt the first 20K from FICA.

        2. Larry B.

          There is nothing “broken” about social security, the only thing it would take to put FICA on a firm actuarial footing for the foreseeable future would be to eliminate the earnings cap and let everybody pay the same rate. The story is similar with health care, there is nothing that couldn’t be fixed just by imitating the system currently in use in, say, France (or Canada, or Germany, or …). The .1% is trying to turn what should be a class struggle into an inter-generational one, and, sadly, being successful.

    2. Carla

      MG: I hope you will look into and join the Move to Amend grassroots national movement to amend the U.S. Constitution to clearly state that: 1. Only human beings, and not corporate entities of any kind, are persons entitled to Constitutional rights; and 2. Money is not speech, and therefore money in politics can be regulated.

      Go to the web site and see if anything is happening near you: http://www.movetoamend.org. If so, please join us. If not, start a Move to Amend affiliate in your community.

      We are currently gearing up for the 5th anniversary of Citizens United on Jan. 21, 2015. However, it’s important to know that the inexorable march to the enshrinement of corporate personhood rights began in 1886 with Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad, so we have a lot of precedent and history to overturn. That’s why it will take a Constitutional amendment.

      If we address only issues of money in politics, the corps will just exercise their “Constitutional rights” and we’ll be right back in the soup again.

      I am not suggesting that the Move to Amend is the only action we need to take, but that each of us ADD it to whatever else we are doing to “fight the robber barons,” because only addressing corporate rule and big money in politics will bring about the fundamental change needed to create a truly democratic (small d) society.

      1. MG

        Peterson’s points to privatize SSI by setting up private accounts were quite dubious especially with the provisions (or lack of) I have seen laid out but his points on healthcare spending generally stands true.

        Every other industrialized country in the world though has a national healthcare financial system for the elderly does have a more firm rationalizing approach. It isn’t bashing the old but a hard and stark truth. Conversation we just don’t have in the US for multiple reasons and if anything there is massive and unnecessary treatment of the elderly in the country.

      2. Eureka Springs

        I’m going to assume/hope MG has not thought through 9.00 as an workable/living minimum wage. Unless he/she is advocating 80 to 100 hr work weeks with single payer, no deductibles or co-pay for all. /s

        Just as Carla and many move to amend advocates have never thought through leaving the power to regulate money in politicians hands is absurd and self-defeating from the get-go (after all that work to pass an amendment!). And is perhaps a big reason why their attempts to rally support have proven to be so fruitless. Rightfully so.

        1. Carla

          Eureka Springs, I’m very interested in your strategies for taking on the Robber Barons. While we’re waiting, for those who are interested, here’s the full text of the “We the People” Amendment proposed by the Move to Amend and introduced in Congress:

          House Joint Resolution 29, introduced by Rep. Nolan on Feb. 14, 2013
          Cosponsors to date: Reps. Cartwright, Huffman and Pocan

          `Section 1. The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons only. Artificial entities, such as corporations, limited liability companies, and other entities, established by the laws of any State, the United States, or any foreign state shall have no rights under this Constitution and are subject to regulation by the People, through Federal, State, or local law. The privileges of artificial entities shall be determined by the People, through Federal, State, or local law, and shall not be construed to be inherent or inalienable.

          `Section 2. Federal, State and local government shall regulate, limit, or prohibit contributions and expenditures, including a candidate’s own contributions and expenditures, for the purpose of influencing in any way the election of any candidate for public office or any ballot measure. Federal, State and local government shall require that any permissible contributions and expenditures be publicly disclosed. The judiciary shall not construe the spending of money to influence elections to be speech under the First Amendment.

          `Section 3. Nothing contained in this amendment shall be construed to abridge the freedom of the press.’.

        2. MG

          Then what constitutes a ‘livable wage’ in your viewpoint and more important is politically feasible? I support the $10.10 increase that the CBO looked at too but even that would be an increasingly push through Congress.

          As for Carla’s solution, it is a workable starting place if not flawed. The only way your system would transpire was if there was true revolution and a reinvention of the US political system.

          1. Carla

            MG–just a note: I do not consider the Move to Amend to be a “solution,” but rather a strategy for building a broad and deep nation-wide, non-partisan, grassroots democracy movement. That is the real work, IMHO.

    3. Gary O

      MG raises the specter of the pending inter-generational war. Dean Baker has debunked this trope extensively at cepr.net. It’s pushed by those who want to cut Social Security and budget deficits, both which push more income and wealth to those at the top. He rightfully points out battles in the future over distribution of income within generations will dwarf the impact of battles over distribution between generations.

      Paraphrasing Baker, the drop in the workers-to-retirees ratio from 5¬-to-1 in the early 60s to 3-to-1 in the early 90s did not prevent both workers and retirees from enjoying substantial improvements in living standards, because productivity growth swamped the impact of the falling w-to-r ratio. The same will be true in the next 23 years “under any plausible assumption of growth,” even though the w-to-r ratio will fall from the current 3-to-1 to a bit under 2-to-1. Baker acknowledges “most workers have not seen the gains of productivity growth over the last three decades, but this just highlights the importance of intra-generational distribution.” <a href="www.cepr.net/index.php/blogs/cepr-blog/the-nonsense-about-a-demographic-crisis" rel=”nofollow”>

      1. MG

        Baker is assuming there is essentially no change in the work-force composition (full-time vs part-time) or the wages of those workers. Just that it fails to 2:1.

        Also leaving the impact of what the current growth levels of those programs will do the federal budget and the ‘crowd effect’ they will have on other areas mainly discretionary spending.

    4. Gary O

      MG raises the specter of the pending inter-generational war. Dean Baker has debunked this trope extensively at cepr.net. It’s pushed by those who want to cut Social Security and budget deficits, both which push more income and wealth to those at the top. He rightfully points out battles in the future over distribution of income within generations will dwarf the impact of battles over distribution between generations.

      Paraphrasing Baker, the drop in the workers-to-retirees ratio from 5-to-1 in the early 60s to 3-to-1 in the early 90s did not prevent both workers and retirees from enjoying substantial improvements in living standards, because productivity growth swamped the impact of the falling w-to-r ratio. The same will be true in the next 23 years “under any plausible assumption of growth,” even though the w-to-r ratio will fall from the current 3-to-1 to a bit under 2-to-1. Baker acknowledges “most workers have not seen the gains of productivity growth over the last three decades, but this just highlights the importance of intra-generational distribution.” http://www.cepr.net/index.php/blogs/cepr-blog/the-nonsense-about-a-demographic-crisis

  24. blurtman

    Excellent points by Mr. Fraser and Yves, and right on target. I would add a few more whose effect was to precisely remind the masses of their powerlessness and even irrelevance – the passing of TARP in spite of overwhelming and enthusiastic opposition by the masses. Add to that no Wall Street criminal prosecutions, and the Coke or Pepsi only political party choices, and resistance becomes futile. This is a small thing, but look at what normal is portrayed as in sitcoms, for example – a megamansion loaded with all the latest gadgets and populated by apolitical simpletons. Feel shame until you achieve normality, citizens. And consume and obey.

    1. sd

      This is a small thing, but look at what normal is portrayed as in sitcoms, for example – a megamansion loaded with all the latest gadgets and populated by apolitical simpletons. Feel shame until you achieve normality, citizens. And consume and obey.

      I suspect that’s more a reflection of the wannabe fantasies of the producers and designers involved thann anything else. The ghoulish face lifts on the other hand….

  25. Demeter

    With what are we going to fight the Robber Barons?

    Politics? Communism and socialism, which drove reforms in the 20th century (as in fear that the masses would rise up) have been so vilified as to be non-starters. Most people are priced right out of politics–Mr. Smith can’t afford to go to Washington, if he isn’t already connected to the system.

    With the laws banning most of the effective union-developed forms of protest, there’s really only one left: a mass boycott by workers and consumers. but against which target? There are so many, and they are shielding each other, when the government isn’t bailing them out.

    Physical combat? That’s why we have the militarized police and the NSA, which gets its nose in on any and every level of fast and easy mass communication.

    Just Leave? And go where?

    Commit suicide? That’s what drugs, alcohol, tobacco and junk food are for….and guns. Mustn’t forget the guns, with or without ones nearest and dearest, with or without police assistance.

    If you’ve got another magic way of making change, do let us know. Otherwise, it’s gonna take generations of oppression and nothing left to lose.

    OR—invasion from the outside. That’s the most likely source of change for us now. Whether the warfare is economic or military, the change will be coming over the borders.

    1. Washunate

      Well said overall. The unwillingness to address reality has been one of the most disappointing aspects of leftist thought for me over the past couple decades. If we are not willing to understand a problem, there is very little hope of actually solving it. Ignoring how bad things have become isn’t a strategy.

      But, I don’t think doom is quite yet inevitable. I certainly acknowledge it could take decades of oppression for us to consume our wealth and make things bad enough there is internal social collapse (with of course all the preventable suffering along the way). And it’s possible we succumb to some form of external invasion. But there’s a third option still available, which is to remove consent from the authoritarian USA and return to Constitutional USA. It’s a cultural fight, the reason the tribal folks are so eager to foment fake Red Team vs Blue Team theatrics, and the reason Millennials value authenticity and justice and teamwork, why they care about what impact your work has, not how much work you do. When you grow up with the slickness, it’s not persuasive. It’s just greasy and gross. But you can’t fight fraud directly; only the government can do that – and the authoritarians are firmly in control of all levels of government. Those that try directly challenging the system using political and physical force have been resoundingly defeated over and over again these past few decades.

      So what younger people have been doing, some voluntarily, others responding to incentives beyond their control, is slowly and steadily removing themselves from what me might call The American Dream. Their revolution isn’t televised – or on FaceBook. They are simply removing their consent, one by one, from the system where and when they can. Look at marriage rates. Birth rates. Opinions on drugs and the police state. Driver licenses. Opinions on debt. Attitudes about formal employment. Home equity. Home size. Owning vs renting. Household financial wealth. Time spent watching the corporate media. There are massive differences as you go from older Americans to younger ones.

      I don’t think the cultural changes are guaranteed – and it’s possible things actually get worse rather than better with a more overt 21st century fascism that formally eliminates the checks and balances at the heart of Constitutional governance – but I’d argue change is still possible without catastrophic collapse. The authoritarians forgot the most important part of long term dominance: convincing the kids that the system is worthy of their loyalty, that it offers them some kind of future worth living. In particular this is true because the existing power structure is so bloated now it is collapsing under its own weight. Everything is so corrupt, no one is left competent to handle even the most trivial and powerless of troublemakers, like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Older Americans may still trust the police, but younger people can’t remove the hilarity of DARE and GREAT and SRO from their minds. And nobody wants to see flashing lights behind you or a ticket on your car. You’re polite because you don’t want your head bashed in, not because you agree with the police state.

    2. davidgmills

      Over the last ten years, I have become convinced that we will have our own French Revolution. When? I have no clue. It sickens me deeply that I think this will be the only way to effect significant change, but it is also what Jefferson thought. One percent of the people just don’t care about the welfare of the rest of us and they hold all the political and economic power. They will not give it up; it will have to be taken away. History will repeat itself.

      Sooner or later a significant part of the population will get that it is the .01% that is making the lives of the 99,99 % miserable. At some tipping point a significant number of us will realize who are society’s real problem, and will take matters into their own hands.

      And for the .01%, there is one thing different about our neo-feudalism. Our knight class, the military and police, have not directly sworn allegiance to the 1%. There is no natural bond between the two. Our knight class is not paid directly by the .01% and does not live in proximity with them. Our nobility is much more at risk than they realize and much more at risk than the nobility of historic feudalism. Our French Revolution will be quick and brutal. The .01% will eventually leave a significant portion of the 99.99% no choice.

  26. jrs

    Why there isn’t more protest, geez I just don’t know it’s so hard to figure out ….

    Because not only may you get arrested if you protest, might police beat your skull and cause permanent brain damage, not only do things like the NDAA exist out there so you could legally just be disappeared if they wanted ….. but if none of that happens you will also become unhirable if you protest. For what kind of jobs? Not just the precariat ones that he is talking about actually, any job that does a criminal background check. He doesn’t realize how while pay and benefits are better, how MUCH tighter the handcuffs are on ‘good middle class jobs’ that he regards as preferable. And you are on your own and there will be no unions to protect you.

    But one has a moral responsibility to protest despite all this? I’m thinking so, but it’s like hiding runaway slaves on the underground railroad at this point. And so your asking: “why isn’t everyone a saint?”

    Though stuff has always been risky, though whether the pool of desperate unemployed people has ever been so great since the great depression I don’t know. Were people just more brave then, did they have more solidarity (certainly with the union movement), did they have more hope? (yes they had hope for communism/socialism)

    1. dimmsdale

      Well, when you say “were people more brave then”, I’m not sure which “then” you’re referring to–but in the “then” I remember, the 60s-70s, for one thing there was always a job out there somewhere; if a misdemeanor arrest from a demonstration got you fired, there was always somewhere else to go. ALWAYS. There were virtually no background checks, except for sensitive govt/defense work, and otherwise your background was what YOU, and your behavior on the job, said it was; no instant arrest-record checks possible. Cops may have been thuggish and brutal, but they lacked the totalist military mindset they have now, as well as the terrifying kabuki appurtenances (hulking black APVs, acoustic cannons, military gear, etc.), and so were a bit less fearsome than now.

      (This in no way applies to civil rights marchers in the South–whose heroism was staggering and who could be “disappeared” via lynch mob for merely showing up in a march.)

      But also missing nowadays is the exhilaration of being part of a movement, and creating through collective action new approaches to problems of the age, the feeling of being part of the cohort that makes a lasting difference for generations, all of which I remember quite vividly from those times. Now you get the feeling (or maybe it’s just me) of Nah, that’s all been tried, and look where we are. Or you see, as I do, how inexorable and formidable and well financed the clampdown is, and how hard to counter with those older tools alone.

      What’s funny though, once you push through glib Fox talking points or cliches of the day and really engage people, is how many regular people know a lot of the issues raised in this thread already–they just don’t see a way out.
      How do we, whoever “we” is, give them, or show them, a way out?

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      People used to be willing to sacrifice for others. There is almost no knowledge of the history of labor organizing in the US, but it is full of workers being brutally beaten, hung, etc. Similarly one of the reasons Daniel Ellsberg decided to release the Pentagon Papers was that he knew many protestors who had gone to prison. He felt he could not sit with what he had when they were making sacrifices of that magnitude to try to stop the war. He fully expected to go to prison.

      As a society, we have become fearful and risk averse.

  27. Banger

    Excellent subject and great commentary by everyone here (almost).

    I’ve made most of my points but want to emphasize here that, ultimately, the problem is cultural–I think we are going to go, in one way or the other, into a very interesting and complicated version of feudalism under the aegis of a global Empire (NWO, Global Marketplace, “the world” and so on)–now this Empire could be relatively benign–much depends on the quality of ruling elites which history has shown are a mixed lot. But here’s the thing that we need to accept, as things stand today, both the ruling elites and the masses do not want democracy or any of the trappings of the old Republic–they want to be ordered and told what to do as long as they have their opiates whether it is religion, opiates. or the full spectrum of sports-porn-shopping-entertainment that I call “the blue pill.” This desire is clear in the U.S. and I cannot speak for other societies but they appear to be, in the main, moving in that direction.

    In the U.S. there is almost no interest at all in the idea of income inequality outside the upper-middle-class. Most other people like the idea that there are fabulously rich and famous and privileged people. We have to remember that most large scale civilizations have not been democratic–I think we are going back to the mean.

    1. ambrit

      This goes well with the observation made somewhere today that revolutions are usually linked to major increases in food costs. If we are on track for an ecological collapse, then food scarcity will be the driver for political change yet again. The important point to keep in mind is that political revolutions can go in either direction. Francos’ overthrow of the Spanish Republic springs to mind as an example of a fairly popular Reaction. (It wasn’t called a Civil War for nothing.) Let’s not make the mistake of assuming everything will “work out for the best” when things go South. That’s a classic case of Magical Thinking. We have to be practical, and determined.

      1. bruno marr

        …things are not likely to work out for the best if we wait for distended bellies. Being just 7 meals from anarchy means things get ugly fast.

  28. perry berens

    Those who have a lone dream have failed at success before starting. Rushing headlong into offering their years of value to the cruel one of corporate capitalism.

  29. thelonegunman

    why are no one fighting the robber barons? because the police are ordered to break the heads of protestors, break up peaceful protest marches… before Ferguson everyone easily overlooked all those ‘disgruntled deadbeats’ (as we were described) getting hauled in during mass arrest round-ups in downtown manhattan and elsewhere… and no one in the main stream media said a word… and our political class in both parties (with a handful of exceptions) have long been bought and paid-for by the same robber barons – they spent the 90’s giving tax breaks to companies for off-shoring what manufacturing they didn’t get paid for helping to gut during the Reagan revolution, moving deeply into moving non-manufacturing with ‘non-essential’ back-office ‘transactional-driven’ white collar operations off-shore…
    to paraphrase what Tony Benn said: keep people poor, sick uneducated and afraid (of terrorism, or flu pandemic or ebola or whatever hair-trigger societal threat being trumpeted on the ‘news channels’) and you can control them…

  30. Bill Frank

    Many thoughtful and astute comments on a topic that deserves attention. IMHO, any discussion on this topic should start with a clear understanding that the New Robber Barons have established near total control of the nation (and beyond). They control the economic system, our government and the vast majority of mass communication. With advances in technology employed as never before, their control is facilitated in ways that would make the Old Robber Barons most jealous. This degree of control is unprecedented and too often underestimated. The old strategies no longer apply. Organizing around and with candidates to win elections is literally a waste of time. This is playing a game GOVERNED by rules written by the NRB. Like it or not, representative democracy does not exist in the US. We must first come to terms with the realization that the ballot box is no longer an option before we can begin to seriously discuss how to take on the NRB. Taking on the NRB will require far more than we imagine.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      Until we have a better sense of strategies that ARE effective, I think it’s a mistake to rule any particular tactic off the table. We don’t know how strong they are unless we challenge them everywhere and anywhere.

  31. Athena1

    I think the primary difference between today and the 1890’s-1950’s is that now, “socialism” has been “discredited.” The only way “serious people” can even discuss it is while talking about worker-owned co-ops and micro-scale, hyper-local endeavors like that.

    The earlier point made about globalization killing the effectiveness of organized labor is a good one, too.

    The vastly superior weapons and surveillance technology the oligarch class has at its disposal is a big one, as well. The Bolshevik Revolution(s) would never, ever have happened if the Russian royalty had access to hydrogen bombs, cruise missiles, currency tracking and facial recognition software, etc. We’re now basically in the position the natives of the American continents were in when the Europeans arrived.

    “They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want”.
    – Christopher Columbus

    1. Banger

      You are right. Not only are to tools of direct repression amazingly effective but the means of mind-control are even more sophisticated and effective. To see the world more or less accurately, you have to be deprogrammed because American Exceptionalism is a cult. In fact, many of the ideas and assumptions people have about our history and the reality of the world are demonstrably false.

      1. Ulysses

        Fighting the NRB, as Bill Frank says, will indeed “require far more than we can imagine.” Yet what else can we do? Surrender and sink into slavery? The other day my daughter and I were admiring the striking portrait of Joan of Arc, by Jules Bastien-Lepage, that hangs in the Met. We both agreed that we knew people with the same driven, perhaps even fanatical, will to fight that blazes so obviously from her eyes. We will sorely need these fighters in the dark days to come– fearless, self-sacrificing and, ultimately, victorious.

        1. Banger

          Well, yes, but in those days issues were clearer and information was limited and well-categorized. Today we live in a sea of disinformation and small bits of real information–how do we focus if we can’t understand clearly the world around us?

          1. Ulysses

            When the 80%, who are now ill-served in our system, recognize that the system itself is designed to screw them over– for the benefit of billionaires– the situation becomes a lot less “complicated.” Imagine eight strong, brawny laborers come out of the hot sun at end of day and discover two over-fed, lazy shmucks sitting on top of barrels of cool water that they refuse to share. Is this situation “too complicated” for these eight guys to understand? Of course not! It’s only slightly more complicated if three of the guys are security guards given a thimbleful of water in exchange for protecting the two lazy schmucks against the other five. The Romans lavished all sorts of wealth on Attila the Hun, seeking to ensure that he’d be the most loyal of mercenaries. How’d that work out?

            I’m fully aware that everything I do and say is being observed and stored on some huge supercomputer out in the desert. So what? I’m supposed to quake in my boots, shut up and stop rocking the boat? Fugheddaboutit!! There are millions upon millions of people a lot angrier than me who will pick up my slack in the struggle if they put me six feet under.

            These times are not so complex after all. There is a very small club of kleptocratic psychopaths that is gleefully pissing down on 99.9% of us from their little tree-house. Their time is almost up now and they have a simple choice: climb on down, face the music and share– or face a human tsunami of rage that will wipe them off the face of the earth.

  32. Samuel Adams

    The USA is seeing the beginnings of “fighting back.” It is the lone gunman taking out 2 cops in NYC. The act was not fair, likely misdirected, but that is how these things start. Main Stream Media will portray the shooter as crazed, but few, if any will dare to explore the reasons behind the why as these events built to a crescendo.

      1. Ulysses

        Shooting is too good for the criminal banksters. They should be put into stocks and pelted with rotten produce. Then, forced to work as Walmart greeters in flyover country for the rest of their miserable lives.

  33. Jason Coulter

    I am one professional that has been in front of this issue for quite sometime now. I have written a book called “Times are Square” as well as a movie called “Working In America.” These productions are a must see & read! May we all find prosperity!!!

    Movie @http://www.amazon.com/The-Film-Working-In-America/dp/B00PYXHLN2/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1419283504&sr=8-7&keywords=the+film+working+in+america

    Book @ http://www.amazon.com/Times-Are-Square-Jason-Coulter/dp/0578141566/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1419283467&sr=8-1&keywords=times+are+square

  34. alex morfesis

    color tv

    ac kept us (and keeps us) from having to interact as we need to keep the doors and windows closed

    color tv takes much more brain power than black and white did…black and white told a story

    color made us lose ourselves in the images and editing…three seconds per image or less and bang…
    takes about 1 and a half seconds to absorb the new visual and then bang…onto the next image…
    creates the illusion of activity by firing our adrenal defense mechanisms…watch any programing from the neutertainment world without sound to get a sense of how it works…

    or better yet
    turn off the lights and watch the visual images from the screen bounce off the walls to see the change in intensity designed into the editing (obviously by turning your back to the screen)…

    and discooperationalism….everyone has to be exactly right…and if one does not fully accept
    “our” meme then it creates friction and most people today are trained to “be right”…

    as for me…I have been right in the past…and I will one day be right again in the future…
    and then I won’t be again…

    it is a huge draining of energy to herd human cats…and one become less forgiving the more one
    comes across pedestrian egos…the hardest part is to keep the ideas fresh and repeat to the unwashed what is now new to them…

    persistence and release of barriers is one of the hardest things to do and allowing a new voice
    some form of outlet even if it does not conform to the current need is one of the more difficult aspects of keeping a room of humans from ending up lost in the noise

  35. susan the other

    This was postabe a comment to one of the above but I got lost. So take it for what it is worth on its own: Nature does it (functions) another way. It makes every niche very complex in an effort to adapt/compete. So instead of growing like a big brainless planet, all the critical parts of an ecosystem, however small, and all the bigger melded parts of a greater ecosystem come together in cooperation. Yes – this implies intelligence – god! imagine that. Cooperation is not exploitation. Never has been. Never will be. And it also is not some figment of human politix – it is an actual thing, like light, or the speed of light. Whereas money is not a goddamn thing.

    1. susan the other

      And also too: Yves’ “I gotta tell you – my dreams are very rich yet a tone mor linear than… (current ads, propaganda, etc).” Listen to your dreams children.

  36. JerryDenim

    “So the free agent myth is indeed a fable told to the economic cannon fodder to energize them to go out and meet their fate. Perhaps readers will tell me otherwise, but the only people I see who believe in it in a serious way are those high on the food chain.”

    Unfortunately I beg to differ, besides the identity politic type of bigotry against minorities and gays the right-wing propaganda machine manages to peddle, nothing keeps college-educated, white male, conservative voters engaged and punching straight Republican tickets more than this enduring, unshakeable cult-like belief in the magical “American Dream” or the Horatio Alger Myth of a plucky low-born man who through grit, character and tenacity works his way up the economic food chain to big boss where he will then relax and enjoy the material fruits of his labor. People at the bottom know this is all utter shit because they have tried working their asses off for the man and it hasn’t worked for them or anybody else that they know. Those who have been stuck on the bottom know the game is rigged and the deck is stacked against them which is why they are more likely to idolize a gangster character like Scarface. The rule-abiding, church-going, police and authority-respecting republican (often white sometimes non-white male), many of which are quite old and experienced in the ways of the world sadly believe that any economic short-comings they have experienced is their fault alone and if they keep grinding away one day their ship will come in and they will finally cross over to the fabled land of the 1% . They greatly admire men like Jamie Dimon and assume he is rich because he is virtuous and his riches and power is a well-deserved reward bestowed upon him by a meritocratic system. This religious, cult-like belief in this myth is toughest kind of thing to try and convince a man to let go of because many of these men are so angry deep down they know if they were to blame anyone other than themselves they would probably commit crimes which would land them in for-profit prisons.

    I had a conversation a couple of weeks ago with an airline captain and union rep at an airline whose pilots had recently voted to unionize and is currently attempting to negotiate a contract. Perhaps he qualifies as ‘one high on the food chain’ but I would classify him more as a middle-class fish. His attitude is typical of what I hear from middle class types these days. After listening to him rage against the evil capitalist management types at his company I almost choked when the conversation shifted and he told me that Augusto Pinochet was a “good man” who “did a lot of good for Chile”. I was flabbergasted. When I pointed out that Pinochet outlawed labor unions in Chile and had labor leaders arrested and probably even executed he quickly attempted to disassociate and say I was “going deep” into history and going over his head. I brought up Milton Friedman and his Chicago boys, neo-liberal economics and tried to tie into Reagan and the modern American malaise but it went absolutely nowhere. This guy was convinced Pinochet was good and any form of even the mildest luke-warm socialism was very bad, he wanted to keep it that way. Despite making close to 200K a year this captain lived in a very expensive SoCal community and felt quite poor compared to others in his community he considered peers. Due to his non-union employer he had never once been able to enjoy a major holiday home with his family or take a week of vacation during the summer with his school-aged kids through eleven years of working at his company. Despite enjoying the actual flying part of his job, he was deeply dissatisfied with his job overall due to horrible work rules, benefits, vacation, insurance etc. He told me how he unsuccesssfully attempted to reinvent himself as a luxury car salesman as an as an alternate career path he thought might provide the income and home-life/schedule he desired. It did not pan out. Through it all was a deep and abiding respect for the very wealthy who in this man’s eyes had ‘made-it’. This same guy saw undocumented workers and drivers license tests being administered in Spanish as the greatest threat to the state of California. Inequality, corruption, the buying of elections, the wall-street financiailization of everything, these issues were not on his radar. The fact that a man in charge of negotiating a labor contract for his pilot peers against well-paid professional union-busting labor lawyers identifies more with Pinochet than Allende speaks volumes about the intellectual state of American unionized labor. Yes, the right-wing political propaganda machine probably has played a part in crafting this man’s world-view but the bedrock beliefs that make individuals prone to Ayn Rand or Horatio Alger claptrap is a product of the American educational system that assiduously scrubs all history textbooks of class struggle and the modern labor movement. Any mention of anarchists or socialists is brief, utterly lacking in context and dismissive. The causes of the great depression and how the conditions that even made it possible are quickly glassed over. Bushes and Kennedy’s are presented as regular individuals, no different or more privileged than anyone else in America who then went on to greatness because of their special drive and talent. Its no accident that someone writing a book about a lack of outrage in the second gilded age is a historian rather than a political scientist or an economist. If Americans ever want to take the country back from this current generation of robber barons we must start by educating the young. The blind will not be able to lead the blind out of the darkness when it comes to class awareness and historical literacy. Labor in America has the moral and the intellectual high ground right now but they are too mis-educated to even know it, let alone articulate it. When labor leaders would choose Pinochet over Allende how does labor ever win?

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      People will cling tenaciously to their misconceptions and ideologies in most countries. It is not unique to Americans though it’s true we seem particularly susceptible to it.

  37. Brooklin Bridge

    Some of these are overlapping

    1) Fear-general fear, irrational fear of harm, fear of loosing what one has, fear of cops, fear of collapse, fear of fear
    2) Think Tanks/Education/MSM/Propaganda in every aspect of life – more pervasive, subtle, and overwhelming than ever before in history
    3) Technology as monitoring, analyzing influence and control – again more pervasive, invasive, relentless and overwhelming than ever before. A very justified sense of hopelessness.
    4) Complexity; the inability to effect identifiable corrective change in an interelated network of systems, each one too complex for human grasp; the whole beyond even the consistent control of the over-class.
    5) Isolation
    6) Deep generational intimidation by the over-class.

    It’s perhaps reckless to make judgements about the past without having been there, but it seems fair to say we have never before had such a number of issues to deal with simultaneously, nor ones so intimidating, complex and beyond control even of their creators.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      In terms of education and propaganda. It’s always seemed to me one of the unique American features of public psychological manipulation – the ideology dream weavers – is that unlike say Russia – where the scientist must ring the bell that makes the dog salivate, here we get the people to enthusiastically ring the bell themselves and even pay for the privilege. Television was one of the most horrific examples of this gleefully self imposed zombification. But make no mistake, the digital age is being shifted every year/month/week/day from it’s “wild west” origins to be more effective in this than TV ever was.

    2. Brooklin Bridge

      5.5 Lack of adaptability to rapid change. We have never before been subject to such constant and such rapid change. What used to take several hundred years in terms of technological change now occurs in months. We are simply not emotionally nor intellectually suited for the pace and scope and this fosters an inability to cope or focus which further cuts the legs of standing up to power.

  38. Mark K

    Hi Yves,

    I wonder what you would make of Australian culture now. Already having followed the path of the US for a number of years under the Howard government, I only see further job insecurity being encouraged in Australia over the past ten years, albeit hidden by a well-timed mining boom. To that end, our current PM is forging ahead with his metadata laws. Perhaps I am overly pessismistic for its economy at the moment, but Australia is no longer the easy-going place it once was — apparently (although I am too young to know). Perhaps it is just a change in the world, and a small open economy is naturally going to be a victim.

    Oh well, it probably still is better than the US. At least we have a workable health system.

  39. MedicalQuack

    Here’s the deal, we are under the Attack of the Killer Algorithms. At what point does an algorithm cross the line from being a utility to being a menace? Those are the words of Christopher Steiner in a TED video from a couple years ago and he’s right. This is the battle folks with technology that scores, and creates models that’s way above our understanding. Don’t feel bad though as watch video #2 at the Killer Algorithms page and even the bank executives don’t understand Quant models, but the big difference is they have them and hire and pay those folks and we don’t. If you want some videos to bring you up to speed, check them out at the Killer Algorithms page, from folks smarter than me. I’m the curator. These are mostly at layman level and that’s what I tried to put together.


    I keep telling the Moyers people too, who do a good job, to go there as that’s where it’s at and the extreme use of analytics is what keeps you and I from not being able to move above the levels where we are “scored” and that has to do with data selling, the profitable epidemic. Watch those new banking apps too as some of those on the back end mine and collect your data for sale for someone else to usually analyze and score. Link below has a pretty colorful video with a game now called “Data Dealer” to give this some attention.


    Now here’s something else too worth a look, the feat of math gives people real pain. Ok this is a real study done with MRI imaging and the whole thing. Hint, they don’t feel any pain on Wall Street so I don’t know does the old saying of no pain no gain work or is it real:)


    You get duped and don’t feel bad either but watch the Killer videos. Looks at Bloom berg and Big Gulp, he got duped and didn’t know when to stop with a model that looked good in the virtual world but would not work in the real world, happens to all of us.


    Models take and move our money and sometimes the development of software is really big and expensive, so we have this conflict of trying to make us humans work like the virtual models say it will, but it doesn’t. I used to be a developer and don’t think I didn’t get fooled a few times with my models, but the deal is know when to put up the white flag and quit pushing people as sometimes, link below, people don’t work that way.


    So that’s how they get our money, Algo Duping and extreme marketing with quantitated justifications for things that are just not true. If we do believe them, well there’s enough out there on that, so watch the videos and kind of maybe get an inkling on when to be a skeptic as those occasions are on rise. Don’t be afraid to be a skeptic when you need to be.

  40. Sierra7

    Capitalism is a game……
    Any game requires rules and trust that those rules will be somewhat fair and that trust be part of the game.
    Our system has had the rules of the game dismantled to a great degree.
    And, trust has been destroyed.
    That’s all that is needed to be said.
    So it is now a “game of outright thievery”.

  41. NOTaREALmerican

    it’s different this time because the nobility isn’t starving the peasants. Peasants with enough food and entertainment are as docile as (well) sheep.

  42. Crank3y Frank3y

    Want to ‘fight the robber barons’?

    Step out and walk. Join in with the New Hampshire Rebellion this January. Watch this clip from last year: Moyers & Co, “NH Rebellion in the Footsteps of Granny D”.

    Before you dismiss a collective action like the NH Rebellion as feckless, recognize that it is an action with a goal of addressing a root cause. The NH Rebellion has the goal of creating dialogue. And countering apathy. Most all the readers here understand that the political system is indeed corrupted and driven by money. Now walk the talk.

    You will be surprised how much one learns simply walking and talking. I did last year and encourage you all to please take a look at the website — NH Rebellion. It may sound a little corny, but Granny D knew you have to be the change you want.

  43. Paul Hirschman

    The great majority of these observations are insightful. At the same time, they seem to be so beside the point. The world is a small place (and getting smaller) with an immense amount of variety (still growing). Perhaps our political traditions, so rich in so many ways, have simply run their course. History is in the process of “melting all that is solid,” once again. Western socialism, libertarianism, New Deals, Great Societies–they all seem exhausted. Fantasy seems more realistic than traditional political discourse. I know I can barely keep up anymore. And I work at it. It doesn’t feel good to think our way of comprehending the world just doesn’t do the trick anymore. But that’s what the truth seems to be. What is to take its place is anyone’s…guess.

  44. Roland

    I am afraid that modern money might have a bit to do with the problem. With our system of soft fiat money, wealth extraction is not as apparent to the majority of people as it would be under a hard currency regime.

    Most people in our time don’t see the massive flow of money going straight from the central monetary authorities directly into the value of the assets owned by the bourgeoisie. This flow basically by-passes 99% of the people, even though the massive rent extraction system, which is sustained and underwritten by that enormous unaccountable flow of money, is steadily washing away the substance of the proletariat.

    Under an old-fashioned, barbarous, hard currency system, it was at least fairly obvious how the bourgeoisie were making us poor.

  45. TarheelDem

    Why? In short:
    Amputation of the American left during the Truman administration and McCarthy era

    Denial of infrastructure as a function of government

    Individualist over-emphasis that allows the clever to walk over other people

    Wage-based employee economy

  46. ep3

    Yves, couple quick comments. First, I think the system uses people like that facebook founder and his story as groundwork to convince the average joe that he is just like zuckerberg. Yet the system leaves out how zuckerberg was at one of the top colleges in the world, surrounded by others who had similarly great ideas, as well as people with the technical know-how (in fact, that know-how is far superior to what the average joe tech person has). So the success story is twisted to fit this general free agent model so that average joe can transpose himself into the story easily.
    Secondly, people look to their sports heroes as examples. And the media/system leaves out the backroom dealings that go on. The sports athlete hires persons to manage all aspects of his career. The average joe doesn’t see all this behind-the-scenes stuff and therefore is left to imagine a painted storyline of a gifted person receiving the blessings of those talents. Which leads to the conclusion that in the marketplace, each talent has a given monetary value. As in your example Yves, the starving artist’s talent is not valued as much as the pro athlete. And as we know, professions where we need the best and brightest for the betterment of our society, those persons are being siphoned away from those jobs and going to whatever pays the best.

  47. Blackjack

    Chiming in on this debate is hard, but a couple of over-simplifications come to mind that seem appropriate…

    a) When you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow, and
    b) Freedom is having nothing left to lose.

    Of the two, the second one resonates a bit, vis a vis this discussion, if, for no other reason, because all else seems to follow from this state…

    So, I must wonder what a fully ( and I mean FULLY) armed country WILL do when its blood is up, and there is nothing left to lose.

  48. Vatch

    How many of the people who post messages on this and other internet sites also send letters to their local newspapers? I bet a lot don’t. How many send messages to their elected politicians? Again, a lot probably don’t. In the general elections, how many vote for third party candidates? I know that some do, but I suspect a lot don’t. Some even advise people to boycott elections, which plays right into the hands of the new robber barons.

    How many of us point our friends and relatives to Bill Moyers interviews and Bill Black articles about the plutocracy? There’s no need to be heavy handed and ideological about it. Just an occasional gentle nudge.

    I think it makes sense to support good candidates in the Democratic Party primaries (or Republican primaries, on the rare occasions when there’s a good candidate), but such candidates often lose. If they win, support them in the general election; if they lose, devote your energy to supporting third party candidates. If you have some spare money, donate to organizations, web sites, or third political parties that support your views.

    We can’t force people to fight the robber barons, but we can do our part. Sometimes we have to branch out from posting messages to Naked Capitalism. On some issues, we have sharp disagreements here, but on the issues of the oligarchy, there’s a lot of agreement, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of preaching to the choir. Let’s do some gentle preaching to some other people on occasion.

  49. c1ue

    My view is that there isn’t any one cause.
    In the first Gilded Age – people were literally starving. They knew, viscerally, that they had nothing to lose because they were experiencing hunger, being dispossessed from their land, actively being excluded from participation in society.
    Today, we haven’t reached the point – any perhaps never will – where enough people will be starving.
    Equally for those being dispossessed, there just aren’t enough being dispossessed to cohere.
    And then there’s the worker bee syndrome: those who are working the day job/temp markets, or Wal-Mart/Amazon with its corporate equivalents, simply don’t have the time or energy to understand how they’re being screwed much less organize to fight it.
    Thus the second issue: what there is to gain vs what there is to lose. For most people – particularly in the middle class – there is far too much to lose. And if they lose it, they’re no longer middle class.
    All I can say is that the pressures will continue to build. Unlike a true 3rd world nation, the United States is filled with people being relegated to 3rd world 99% status (NOT wealth) but without the concomitant 3rd world education and lack of expectations.
    Unless something changes – at some point the pressures will build and/or a unifying ideology will arise which will cause a social upheaval.
    Until then, the 1% will keep turning the screws.

  50. Pepin

    There’s a much simpler explanation: those smart enough to start a revolution all have good paying jobs as the present economic structure requires a lot more brain power than that of 100 years ago. Furthermore, they live in the in-cities, shielded off from the rest of the country, effectively gated off by the high prices and costs of living in those cities. The point is that the masses who suffer in today’s system are on average far less smart than those that suffered 100 years ago. Therefore they are far less likely to take action and topple the system. What we are seeing is the mass getto-isation of most of middle America whereas the happy few live in the in-cities, barely aware of what happens outside them.

    1. tew

      You make a good point. Having lived and spent time in many of the most celebrated liberal enclaves in U.S. West Coast cities, I can add that casual disdain and ridicule of middle America is common. They vote blue, but there is an unmistakable dislike for “those people”. The most charitable thing you’ll sometimes hear is the all knowing lamentation about how “they’re too stupid to even vote in their own interest”.

  51. tew

    One thing is for sure. It’s fun to see the “we should be more like Europe” crowd who decried U.S. “militarized policing” watch France’s reaction to the Paris attacks. Ten thousand heavily armed military in the streets, not to mention the heavily armed national police.

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