Let me begin this assessment by prefacing that I am not an economist, an economic historian, political historian or the like. I am, however, by academic training and lifelong practice, a social scientist with an advanced degree in sociology (social psychology) and am taking more of a survey of issues at play in contemporary American discourse from that perspective. Having said this, I would like an economic historian tell me how and why some of my analyses are factually off base . . . if they are.
When I look at the hyperbolic, inflammatory, and outright incorrect rhetoric (lies) from the fringe right (as represented by Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, Palin, Bachmann among many others) over the last couple years, especially since the election of the first minority President (half White, half Black), I can’t help but wonder; did they simply fail middle-school civics courses, did they in fact pass but have forgotten, or do they simply not care as the agenda they promote requires that they make mythical some key concepts, events, and practices in American history, its constitution, and in the evolution of the American body politic.
What I see is the great and powerful Oz telling us not to look at the man behind the curtain.
The Founding of America.
The “Tea Party” loves to cloak itself in revolutionary regalia and nostalgia be they tricorn hats or Gadsden flags, these are images of our America so they say. But the America mythologized by these merry modern “patriots” belies the facts; that America was founded not for the betterment of all living in the colonies, rather for a select class of aristocrats tired of being subjugated by King George III. The revolution was indeed fought by aristocrat, indentured servant, and at times slave alike (the half-Black, ex-slave Crispus Attucks being the first to die in the name of American freedom), but the beneficiaries of the war were primarily those aristocrats who had “skin in the game”; property and position. Furthermore, having won their “freedom,” the newly minted “Americans’” first impulse was not one of universal liberation; to free the slaves, empower women or native peoples, or release the white indentured from their servitude (though some were), no, their first impulse was to reform the monarchy in their image and for their purposes by naming General Washington their king!
While the colonies turned into states, the economic engine that created and expanded a nation was primarily that of White Anglo-centric capital and Black (and sometimes Native) slave labor. Later, Chinese would be indentured to help build the railroads and by the twentieth century colonial Spaniards (Hispanics) would help to settle the agrarian West only to then move ever eastward by century’s end. One cannot, nor should not forget the millions of European ethnics (Irish, German, Scandinavian, etc.) that too lent their labor to both the expansion of the agricultural sector as well as the development and solidification of urban life. Herein, we find the genesis of the “liberal” America we know today.
While many European ethnics were fighting for worker dignity (banning child labor, 40 hour work weeks, overtime, unionization, etc.) others were hoping to draw on the morality of Franklin, Jay, Hamilton and the sadly small handful of “founding fathers” who dared to demand the abolition of slavery. Other efforts can be seen in the women’s Suffragette movements, farm-worker movements among others. These efforts would be driven through the 20th century by “liberals” and their attendant organizations that hoped to distance America from its paternal, class-based, and aristocratic founding, putting the founders’ rhetoric into actual practice.
Capitalism; pseudo-science for the Aristocrat?
From my obscure and humble position I view “Capitalism” as the logical, rationalized “pseudo-science” devised by and for the post-colonial, post-monarchal elite. This group, after the fall of Feudal monarchies now needed a rationalized (see following on Ayn Rand) systematic approach to justify privilege and the acquisition of land and resources. Gone were the “spiritual” justifications that “God” ordains kings and subsequently other royalty and lords, no they now needed a structure one that looked and operated the same but that could be cloaked in modern, rational science. I find it very telling that indeed the structure looks the same with today’s kings being multinational and other corporate executives whom, often operating beyond borders and often in spite of the national sovereignty and/or the will of the local population, install puppet governments to do their bidding and all-the-while expand their reach. Their vassal lords are politicians and media pundits all well compensated for doing their king’s bidding, primarily keeping the serfs and peasants misinformed but entertained. Is it simply coincidence that the current, commonly accepted ratio of wealth to population is that 90% of America’s wealth is held by 10% of its people – sound familiar? One might argue, “but Oprah proves that hard work and time rewards effort!” Really? First, one can surmise that for every dollar she has made in her work her distributor has made three shuffling the paperwork which gets to my second point; it wasn’t unheard of for a serf or peasant, in pleasing his king in battle or in loyalty, to be elevated in rank/class.
For all of the bluster “Tea Party” activists try to make about returning to “our” roots and “re-establishing” Capitalism as not only the driver of our economy but of our social life as well they are clearly, once again, derelict and deficient in their understanding of their revered document; nowhere in the Constitution does it mention Capitalism. Tangential references to commerce, regulation, and freedom have been boiled together with the end result being the assumption that “economic freedom” equals “Capitalism” as opposed to the kind of small, local commerce that was practiced at the time. Bottom line is that the Constitution does not directly lead to Capitalism — quite the contrary.
One could argue the need for “communal understanding” goes back to the Mayflower Compact where the earliest settlers understood that they would not make it “on their own”. It is no coincidence that the earliest states chose to affix the term “commonwealth” to their enterprise, again knowing that the community was founded for the common good. As an aside, isn’t it telling that America’s most rhetorically cherished word, “community,” like so many other valued words in the American mythological lexicon have the root “Com” . . .
Let’s flash-forward to contemporary times as the generational infatuation with Ayn Rand resurfaces. These nostalgic recollections seem to coincide with periodic and apparent social upheaval in the greater society and her notions of “objectivism,” “individual rights” and the like give great cover to a sub-culture in fear of change and loss of privilege. We see her rise to cult-star status in the late 50’s, a time when White teenagers are discovering “race music” and Beatniks Jazz; a nascent Black power movement is seen and “The Feminine Mystique” is being written. We see her again in the late 60’s when this previous challenge to White, male, patriarchal order is directly challenged – this time by their own children while the country is divided amongst itself as it wrestles with its place in the world. Her ideas resurrect themselves again in the 70’s/early 80’s; the civil rights and women’s liberation movements fully entrenched and the nation in economic malaise, a President who promises morning in America while circumventing Congress (the law) in dubious, perhaps criminal ways and again pits the “haves” against “the have nots”. And now we see her again, on the eve that most demographers point to as the socio-cultural, indeed numeric end of a majority White society. This coupled with the economic dislocation of “free trade” versus “fair trade,” facilitated by conservatives both Republican and Democratic, creates an anxiety that the “White” “aristocrat” finds unsettling and at odds with their assumptions about America and beliefs as to what she should be.
Perhaps Ms. Rand had similar anxieties, ones that propelled her to lash out at not corruption in a Pre-Soviet government but at government itself. As bourgeois young girl in a well-to-do, professional family the convulsing changes in her mother Russia most have been painful, resulting in great and lasting impact. Instead of questioning the means and motives of a dictator, she seemingly extrapolated her disgust outward to the entire notion of “state,” seeming never to acknowledge or project that multinational, “corporate enterprise” seeks state-like status of its own – equally heinous, equally damaging to the human spirit.
So now in 2011, three years after America elects its first “minority” President we see her in vogue again. We see characters in Revolutionary garb citing her words. We see people who have shown contempt for education trumpeting her philosophy. We see corporations and aristocrats financing allegedly “grass-roots” organizations made up of people who swear otherwise, even as they continuously contradict themselves and actually operate against their personal financial and class interests.
Characters like “Joe-the-Plumber” have also seemingly been swept by such “Randian” anxiety as well as a current that has been building in America, a notion that any man/woman can rise to the aristocratic class, regardless of connections, skills, pedigree, or education – they do their class a disservice. It is the “lottery” argument; that you can’t win if you don’t play.” In this case, the obstacle to wealth is not the lack of purchasing a lottery tickets but the impediment of others, “those” people who are in “their” way; women taking men’s jobs, illegal workers, arguing on behalf of lower tax-rates that are irrelevant to their class, a foreign, “Socialist” President. Further proof of this myopia is when they argue against unions that represent workers like themselves and instead protest on behalf of the chamber of commerce (the nation’s largest union); the organization that represents the very corporations and other monied interests that outsource the very jobs they complain about losing. The end result? The erosion of the middle-class, and the very country they claim to love.
Why knowledge matters!
As referred to earlier, the “Tea Party” (and others) seemingly has a disdain for learned people, perhaps this is why they find kinship with figures and candidates who display marginal, at best, understanding of the issues of the day as well as American history. I would conjecture further, that the “powers that be” that finance their movement impress upon them the degree to which education is irrelevant and even detrimental and what is of greater virtue is tenacity and loyalty – again, sound familiar?
This “anti-intellectual” bias has crept into many if not all universities where “liberal” knowledge was once the goal in itself; that a thinking man/woman could find his/her way. Now, shear intelligence/knowledge (a liberal arts education) is actually almost detrimental to most economic participation for all the aristocrat (corporate overlord) wants is a dutiful “skilled” body finding ways to lower costs thereby enabling his desire at expanded profit margins. The great American university has been relegated to ivy-covered vocational institutions.
Dystopia or Utopia; toward a more perfect union.
Ayn Rand’s dystopian future of the world and America in specific could be near but not because of the heavy hand of the state as she feared, rather from the blind profit, search and destroy trajectory of our contemporary corporate class, our kings.
In realizing her worst nightmare she never conjectured an America that will become “majority minority” comprised of disparate groups, many of whom have historically required the government to step in and not only secure their liberties, but indeed to redress very real grievances. Undoubtedly many on the fringe of the right dismiss this as in pursuit of “their” country, their regressive revolutionary belief system(s) dictate that people of color, non-Christians, even White women had/have no place in the “strict reading of the Constitution.” The fact is, the debate has changed and the country is headed (perhaps by the 2040 census) to a day when non-whites out number whites and many of the demands they place on government will be reflected not only by their historical relationship with government but more so by what the current society affords them by way of opportunity — or doesn’t. Will there be a collective “payback” mentality or will today’s minority youth be inclined to want to move the country toward a more perfect union as rhetorically envisioned by its founders? The consequences could be profound.
Today’s political parties, both Democrats and Republicans, react simply to who votes. This is also myopic and dangerous at that. The Democrats could become a smaller party and the Republicans could become extinct. Perhaps a third party that represents this new majority will form, with suburban White women as "co-conspirators". Additionally, solely focusing on “those who vote” belies the very real fact that while a given “group” may not voice or flex its desires they will none-the-less impact society in deep ways. Has, for example, the most recent Paul Ryan budget, one that seeks to further marginalize the minority and poor White among us, calculated for the social and financial costs associated with loss of healthcare, and general socio-economic dislocation due to the erosion social safety net which invariably will lead to increased poverty, disease, homelessness, crime, etc.? There is your dystopic future! No, they don’t think that far ahead at the same time they are seemingly in denial of this profound sociological shift occurring in the country.
There is a way out. Both parties, primarily the Republicans, need accept the transformation under way and concede that a large, multi-cultural country (many of whose citizens will look to the government as the place of socio-economic last resort and a place for redressing historic, systemic grievences) will require a “large,” flexible government. The Republicans will have to, once-and-for-all, reject the Randian, pro-corporation utopia and actually look to the document they allegedly cherish and help to usher in a more perfect union. The Democrats, if they want to realize their rhetorical role as champions for the middle-class and underdog, need to cede control of the party to the younger, more diverse elements of society. Both need to, like Rand didn’t, critique not the government itself but elements of the government that fail. After all, the government is people and if it ceases in its prime directive (“. . . to form a more perfect union, Establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, Provide for the common defense, Promote the general welfare and Secure the blessings of liberty . . .”) one should want to replace the people who have abdicated their charge -- anything else is more like choosing to walk, abandoning your car because it has a flat tire.
The United States of Oz is a country built on ignorance, habit, post-colonial, post-feudal mythology. The United States of America could become the land of liberty and opportunity for all as written and envisioned . . . but not until we expose and relieve the man behind the curtain of his duties and defrock him of his (post) colonial suit.