America is “a democracy on life support — it can’t breathe”

Philosopher Henry Giroux on the culture of cruelty and Donald Trump:

Author of a new book on Trump’s rise says we face “something so dark, so real, so evil” with no clear precedent

Philosopher Henry Giroux on the culture of cruelty and Donald Trump: America is "a democracy on life support — it can’t breathe"
(Credit: Getty/Jim Watson/Shutterstock)

Next week we will mark the 100th day that Donald Trump has been president of the United States. Tens of millions of Americans are still in a state of shock. These 100 days have made them feel like enemy outsiders in their own country.

It was said some years ago that “when fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” This left the American people unprepared for how neofascism came instead in the form of Donald Trump, a reality TV star, racist, bigot, con artist and professional wrestling aficionado.

How did the United States arrive at this moment?

The American news media betrayed its sacred role as guardians of democracy who inform the public so that they can be responsible citizens who make informed political decisions.

There is a deep crisis of faith and trust in America’s political and social institutions. America’s political culture is highly polarized and divisive. The Republican Party has embraced a strategy of destroying the existing political rules and norms that make effective governance possible. Today’s conservatism is regressive and reactionary. It is an enemy of the commons and of the very idea of government.

Racism, bigotry and nativism compelled Donald Trump’s voters to act out in a nihilistic temper tantrum.

Voter demobilization and gerrymandering have subverted democracy and given Republicans a political chokehold on the country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin used his country’s intelligence agencies to undermine the 2016 presidential election by manipulating the American news media and Republican voters in favor of Donald Trump.

But none of these forces would have been so powerful if not for a deeper cultural rot and moral weakness in American society. This is what philosopher Henry Giroux has described as the “culture of cruelty.” It is the intersection of creeping authoritarianism, militarism, surveillance, violence by the state against its citizens, gangster capitalism and extreme wealth inequality, the assault on the very idea of community and government, widespread loneliness, and social dominance behavior against the Other.

How did the culture of cruelty help to create the political and social circumstances for the election of Donald Trump? Is the United States now a fascist and authoritarian state? What are the issues that could potentially unite the American people to create a more humane society and to resist the cultural and political forces that helped to elect Trump? Are Trump’s voters victims? Is American democracy in a state of crisis and permanent decline? What should resistance look like in this moment?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Giroux, a professor of English and cultural studies at McMaster University in Canada. He has written dozens of articles and books, including “America at War with Itself” and the forthcoming “The Public in Peril: Trump and the Menace of American Authoritarianism.”

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. A longer version can be heard on my podcast, available on Salon’s Featured Audio page.

What does it feel like from your point of view, having written so much about the culture of cruelty and authoritarianism, to watch it unfold in the United States in real time? 

I’ve been writing about the potential for authoritarianism in the United States for 20 years. This is not a new discourse for me. What has often surprised me is not that it unfolded or the new liberal orthodoxy that increasingly made it appear more and more possible. What shocked me was the way the left has refused to really engage this discourse in ways that embrace comprehensive politics, that go beyond the fracturing single-issue movements and begin to understand both what the underlying causes of these authoritarian movements have been and what it might mean to address them.

You have to ask yourself, what are the forces at work in the United States around civic culture, around celebrity culture, around the culture of fear, around the stoking of extremism and anger about issues? About a media that creates a culture of illusion, about the longstanding legacy of racism and terror in the United States. I mean, how did that all come together to produce a kind of authoritarian pedagogy that basically isolated people, and made them feel lonely? All of a sudden they find themselves in a community of believers, in which the flight from reality offers them a public sphere in which they can affirm themselves and no longer feel that they’re isolated.

Are Donald Trump’s voters victims?

I think the notion of victim is really a bad term because it takes away any pretense for agency and social responsibility.

I try to crystallize it down to, “They voted to hurt people.”

That’s right. Exactly.

The corporate news media has refused to admit this. They want to rehabilitate these folks as having “buyer’s remorse.” That is absurd. The vast majority of Trump’s voters do not regret a damn thing. When you actually go out and look at the data it is clear that Trump is a Republican. Trump supports their agenda and conservatives are happy he is doing their bidding.

We know the anger that most of Trump’s voters were supposedly mobilized around was not against the rich. It was not about income inequality. It was about racism. It was about white supremacy. It was about inflicting pain on people. It was about taking away social provisions that even they would benefit from in the name of a false appeal to “individual freedom” and “liberty.”

This also gets us to how American liberals and progressives are seemingly unable to craft powerful narratives.

My take is that if they go to the root of the problem, they indict themselves. I think that language becomes for them simply a question of coding that often hides what they’re basically responsible for in terms of the culture of cruelty, barbarism and violence. When you talk about the mass incarceration state, you’re talking about Democrats. If you want to talk about drone strikes and private armies, you’re talking about Democrats. I think people who look to liberals for some sort of salvation in this country are fooling themselves. We need a third party and we need to stop equating capitalism and democracy.

What do you think will happen in America in the future?

I think that what we’re going to discover is that no society can exist when there’s no social fabric to bring them together. The emotional quotient has been so lowered, the bar is so low now that the only thing that people feel basically is around questions of violence and idiocy. That’s a lethal combination. It’ll be interesting to see how people talk about this issue in the future, in ways where they try to understand how the very notion of agency itself was destroyed, commercialized, commodified and turned into something that was weaponized.

Donald Trump is the crystallization of everything wrong in this country. It is funny to watch the talking heads on television and elsewhere wring their hands. They are trying to argue that Trump won despite being a misogynist, sexual abuser, bigot, racist and white supremacist. I argue that Trump won precisely because he was all of those things.

Donald Trump is the distillation of an attack on democracy that has become more cruel, more brutal and more poisonous, more militarized and more violent since the 1970s. To simply view him as eccentric, to view him as some kind of clown who now has tapped into a certain element of the culture, is to really miss the point.

What do you think are three or four specific policy goals or initiatives that could potentially bring together Donald Trump’s voters and the majority of Americans?

The first thing that has to be talked about, without any question whatsoever, is a national health care plan. Second, we need a social wage, a universal wage. Third, we need a jobs program.

Bernie Sanders was talking about many of these issues. Why do you think they did not resonate enough to win him the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination?    

It did not resonate because he is seen as part of the Democratic Party. He was a fool. I do not understand why he did this. Once Hillary Clinton won the nomination, it became embarrassing. All of a sudden Sanders is talking about issues that the Democratic Party hates. He’s talking about issues that the Democratic Party runs away from. Yet he’s arguing for issues that are basically very progressive within a structure that’s incredibly reactionary. What the hell is wrong with him? Does he not get it?

To return to questions of language, the news media has decided to legitimate white supremacists by calling them the “alt-right.” I view this as an act of surrender and cowardice.

I never use the word “alt-right” in my work. Never. I talk about white supremacists. I don’t use the words “fake news.” I talk about lies — state lies, state-manufactured lies.

What do you think resistance should look like against Donald Trump and his regime?   

Direct action. We need to talk about an economic strike. You need to bring groups together all over the country to shut it down. The country has got to become ungovernable. There are going to be moments here that even you and I will be shocked by. Trust me: This is coming. You are now living in a terrorist state. This is what the essence of totalitarianism is about. It’s organized around terror, and that’s exactly what this administration is about. I think more and more people will organize and more and more people will realize that this can’t be simply about local demonstrations. I think the only way that the Trump administration can deal with dissent is to attempt to humiliate people — but even more importantly, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions there will be a systemic expansion of what I call “punishment creep,” where every facet of society will be criminalized.

If you were to give a diagnosis for the health of American democracy, what would it be?

It’s a democracy that’s on life support. It can’t breathe. I don’t think we are tipping over into neofascism. I think we’ve tipped over. It’s just a more subtle form of neofascism than anything we’ve seen in the past. The argument that we have to have concentration camps to talk about fascism is nonsense. As any theorist of fascism will tell you, if it comes to America, it will come in different forms.

Are you ever afraid? Do you ever say to yourself, “My God, how did we get here?”   

I remember in 1980, watching Ronald Reagan get elected. I remember being around friends. At the time, I was teaching at Boston University. I thought, “Holy shit! This is really a turning point.” But it didn’t hit me existentially the way the Trump election did. I woke up the next day and I felt paralyzed. I felt that we had entered into something so dark, so real, so evil that there was really no precedent for it in terms of its all-encompassing possibilities for death, destruction and violence. I had a hard time functioning for about a week. I think in some ways there’s a residue of that I can’t shake, that now informs my work.

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

Trump’s Education Budget Will Undermine Teaching and Schools

EDUCATION
Before Trump, class sizes were already growing.

Photo Credit: mnps.org

Though much has been written about President Trump’s proposed budget cuts, little has been said about how his largest proposed cut to public schools, the total elimination of $2.4 billion in Title IIA funds, would likely increase class size across the nation.

Most schools have already have seen sharp increases in class size since the great recession. While the number of public K-12 teachers and other school staff fell by 221,000 since 2008, the number of students increased by 1,120,000. In NY state, the total number of teachers in New York state public schools plunged by about 26,000 between 2008-2015, according to NYSED statistics. In New York City, this has resulted in sharp increases in class size, with Kindergarten through 3rd grade classes larger than they were in 1999; in grades 4-8, larger than in 2004. This year, more than 300,000 NYC students are crammed into classes of 30 or more.

The Title IIA program has existed at least since the Eisenhower administration, and until the year 2000 was used mostly for teacher training. President Clinton created a separate funding stream to help districts lower class size, but this dedicated funding was folded into the overall Title IIA program by George W. Bush when he became President. In 2015-2016, thirty-five percent of school districts used their Title IIA funds to hire teachers on staff to reduce class size- or more likely to prevent layoffs, and this was especially true in the highest poverty districts. In New York City, the entire allocation of $101 million in Title IIA funds was used to prevent further class size increases – which helped prevent the elimination of approximately 1000 teaching positions.

Why is this important? Class size reduction is not only extremely popular among parents and teachers – it is one of the very few reforms proven to work through rigorous evidence, and to provide especially large benefits for children from low-income families and students of color, who see twice the academic gains from small classes. Indeed, it is only one of a handful of educational policies that has been shown to significantly narrow the achievement gap between economic and racial groups.

Research has also linked smaller classes to improvements in many other ways, boosting non-cognitive skills and parent involvement. Class size reduction lessens disciplinary problems because students are more engaged in classroom discussion and debate and less likely to be disruptive. Small classes also ease teacher attrition rates – particularly in high-needs districts, because teachers are more successful they are less likely to quit the profession or transfer to schools with more advantaged students. See the Class Size Matters research summary, showing these and other benefits.

Trump and his Education Secretary Betsy Devos want to completely eliminate Title IIA funds, while at the same time increasing government support to privately-run schools, including charters, parochial and private schools. They claim to be supporting a parent’s right to choose by expanding these options. Yet most parent’s first choice is a well-resourced, neighborhood public school with reasonably small classes, to ensure that their children are provided with sufficient attention and feedback from their teachers. The proposed elimination of Title IIA funds will work against parent choice, by making it even more difficult for parents to access these options – and will undermine the quality of education their children receive, especially those students who need small classes the most.

Shortly before his death, Kurt Vonnegut was asked: “If you were to build or envision a country that you could consider yourself to be a proud citizen of, what would be three of its basic attributes”? Vonnegut responded: “Just one: great public schools with classes of 12 or smaller.” Interviewer: “That’s it?” Vonnegut: “Yeah….Just do this.”

Though it’s unlikely that any public schools will be able to offer class sizes that small, the least the federal government can do is help preserve the class sizes students currently have. You can see how much your state currently receives in Title IIA funds here.

 

 

Leonie Haimson is a founding board member of the Network for Public Education. She is the Executive Director of Class Size Matters, a non-profit advocacy group working for smaller class sizes in NYC and the nation as a whole. She is also a co-founder of Parents Across America, a national grassroots group that supports progressive and proven education reforms.

http://www.alternet.org/education/trumps-proposed-education-budget-cuts-will-increase-class-size-nationwide?akid=15456.265072.LwXjTx&rd=1&src=newsletter1075906&t=10

America Is Regressing into a Developing Nation for Most People

BOOKS
A new book reveals that the U.S. is becoming two distinct countries, with separate economies, politics and opportunities.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

This post originally appeared on the blog of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

You’ve probably heard the news that the celebrated post-WW II beating heart of America known as the middle class has gone from “burdened,” to “squeezed” to “dying.” But you might have heard less about what exactly is emerging in its place.

In a new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, Peter Temin, professor emeritus of economics at MIT, draws a portrait of the new reality in a way that is frighteningly, indelibly clear: America is not one country anymore. It is becoming two, each with vastly different resources, expectations and fates.

Two roads diverged

In one of these countries live members of what Temin calls the “FTE sector” (named for finance, technology and electronics, the industries that largely support its growth). These are the 20 percent of Americans who enjoy college educations, have good jobs and sleep soundly knowing that they have not only enough money to meet life’s challenges, but also social networks to bolster their success. They grow up with parents who read books to them, tutors to help with homework and plenty of stimulating things to do and places to go. They travel in planes and drive new cars. The citizens of this country see economic growth all around them and exciting possibilities for the future. They make plans, influence policies and count themselves lucky to be Americans.

The FTE citizens rarely visit the country where the other 80 percent of Americans live: the low-wage sector. Here, the world of possibility is shrinking, often dramatically. People are burdened with debt and anxious about their insecure jobs if they have a job at all. Many of them are getting sicker and dying younger than they used to. They get around by crumbling public transport and cars they have trouble paying for. Family life is uncertain here; people often don’t partner for the long-term even when they have children. If they go to college, they finance it by going heavily into debt. They are not thinking about the future; they are focused on surviving the present. The world in which they reside is very different from the one they were taught to believe in. While members of the first country act, these people are acted upon.

The two sectors, notes Temin, have entirely distinct financial systems, residential situations and educational opportunities. Quite different things happen when they get sick or when they interact with the law. They move independently of each other. Only one path exists by which the citizens of the low-wage country can enter the affluent one, and that path is fraught with obstacles. Most have no way out.

The richest large economy in the world, says Temin, is coming to have an economic and political structure more like a developing nation. We have entered a phase of regression and one of the easiest ways to see it is in our infrastructure: our roads and bridges look more like those in Thailand or Venezuela than the Netherlands or Japan. But it goes far deeper than that, which is why Temin uses a famous economic model created to understand developing nations to describe how far inequality has progressed in the United States. The model is the work of West Indian economist W. Arthur Lewis, the only person of African descent to win a Nobel Prize in economics. For the first time, this model is applied with systematic precision to the U.S.

The result is profoundly disturbing.

In the Lewis model of a dual economy, much of the low-wage sector has little influence over public policy. Check. The high-income sector will keep wages down in the other sector to provide cheap labor for its businesses. Check. Social control is used to keep the low-wage sector from challenging the policies favored by the high-income sector. Mass incarceration: check. The primary goal of the richest members of the high-income sector is to lower taxes. Check. Social and economic mobility is low. Check.

In the developing countries Lewis studied, people try to move from the low-wage sector to the affluent sector by transplanting from rural areas to the city to get a job. Occasionally it works; often it doesn’t. Temin says that today in the U.S., the ticket out is education, which is difficult for two reasons: you have to spend money over a long period of time, and the FTE sector is making those expenditures more and more costly by defunding public schools and making policies that increase student debt burdens.

Getting a good education, Temin observes, isn’t just about a college degree. It has to begin in early childhood, and you need parents who can afford to spend time and resources all along the long journey. If you aspire to college and your family can’t make transfers of money to you on the way, well, good luck to you. Even with a diploma, you will likely find that high-paying jobs come from networks of peers and relatives. Social capital, as well as economic capital, is critical, but because of America’s long history of racism and the obstacles it has created for accumulating both kinds of capital, black graduates often can only find jobs in education, social work, and government instead of higher-paying professional jobs like technology or finance— something most white people are not really aware of. Women are also held back by a long history of sexism and the burdens — made increasingly heavy — of making greater contributions to the unpaid care economy and lack of access to crucial healthcare.

How did we get this way?

What happened to America’s middle class, which rose triumphantly in the post-World War II years, buoyed by the GI bill, the victories of labor unions and programs that gave the great mass of workers and their families health and pension benefits that provided security?

The dual economy didn’t happen overnight, says Temin. The story started just a couple of years after the ’67 Summer of Love. Around 1970, the productivity of workers began to get divided from their wages. Corporate attorney and later Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell galvanized the business community to lobby vigorously for its interests. Johnson’s war on poverty was replaced by Nixon’s war on drugs, which sectioned off many members of the low-wage sector, disproportionately black, into prisons. Politicians increasingly influenced by the FTE sector turned from public-spirited universalism to free-market individualism. As money-driven politics accelerated (a phenomenon explained by the Investment Theory of Politics), leaders of the FTE sector became increasingly emboldened to ignore the needs of members of the low-wage sector, or even to actively work against them.

America’s underlying racism has a continuing distorting impact. A majority of the low-wage sector is white, with blacks and Latinos making up the other part, but politicians learned to talk as if the low-wage sector is mostly black because it allowed them to appeal to racial prejudice, which is useful in maintaining support for the structure of the dual economy — and hurting everyone in the low-wage sector. Temin notes that “the desire to preserve the inferior status of blacks has motivated policies against all members of the low-wage sector.”

Temin points out that the presidential race of 2016 both revealed and amplified the anger of the low-wage sector at this increasing imbalance. Low-wage whites who had been largely invisible in public policy until recently came out of their quiet despair to be heard. Unfortunately, present trends are not only continuing, but also accelerating their problems, freezing the dual economy into place.

What can we do?

We’ve been digging ourselves into a hole for over 40 years, but Temin says we know how to stop digging. If we spent more on domestic rather than military activities, then the middle class would not vanish as quickly. The effects of technological change and globalization could be altered by political actions. We could restore and expand education, shifting resources from policies like mass incarceration to improving the human and social capital of all Americans. We could upgrade infrastructure, forgive mortgage and educational debt in the low-wage sector, reject the notion that private entities should replace democratic government in directing society, and focus on embracing an integrated American population. We could tax not only the income of the rich, but also their capital.

The cost of not doing these things, Temin warns, is incalculably high, and even the rich will end up paying for it.

“Look at the movie Hidden Figures,” he says. “It recounts a very dramatic story about three African-American women condemned to have a life of not being paid very well teaching in black colleges, and yet their fates changed when they were tapped by NASA to contribute to space exploration. Today we are losing the ability to find people like that. We have a structure that predetermines winners and losers. We are not getting the benefits of all the people who could contribute to the growth of the economy, to advances in medicine or science which could improve the quality of life for everyone — including some of the rich people.”

Along with Thomas Piketty, whose Capital in the Twenty-First Century examines historical and modern inequality, Temin’s book has provided a giant red flag, illustrating a trajectory that will continue to accelerate as long as the 20 percent in the FTE sector are permitted to operate a country within America’s borders solely for themselves at the expense of the majority. Without a robust middle class, America is not only reverting to developing-country status, it is increasingly ripe for serious social turmoil that has not been seen in generations.

A dual economy has separated America from the idea of what most of us thought the country was meant to be.

Lynn Parramore is contributing editor at AlterNet. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of “Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.” She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU, and she serves on the editorial board of Lapham’s Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore. 

http://www.alternet.org/books/america-regressing-developing-nation-most-people?akid=15455.265072.jP3WSU&rd=1&src=newsletter1075889&t=8

Why Aren’t Bernie Sanders-Style Democrats Getting More Support from the Party Leaders in Washington?

NEWS & POLITICS
In Kansas, the Democrats barely lifted a finger to help James Thompson, a progressive who came painfully close to winning. That’s a losing strategy.

Photo Credit: Screenshot / YouTube

Since losing the presidency to a Cheeto-hued reality TV host, the Democratic party’s leadership has made it clear that it would rather keep losing than entertain even the slightest whiff of New Deal style social democracy.

The Bernie Sanders wing might bring grassroots energy and – if the polls are to be believed – popular ideas, but their redistributive policies pose too much of a threat to the party’s big donors to ever be allowed on the agenda.

Even a symbolic victory cedes too much to those youthful, unwashed hordes who believe healthcare and education are human rights and not extravagant luxuries, as we saw when the Democratic establishment recruited Tom Perez to defeat the electorate-backed progressive Keith Ellison for DNC chair.

The Democrats demonstrated this once more this week when, in a special election triggered by Trump’s tapping of Mike Pompeo for CIA director, a Berniecrat named James Thompson came painfully close to winning a Kansas Congressional seat that had been red for over two decades, and his party didn’t even try to help him.

If Thompson’s picture is not on the Wikipedia page for “left-wing populism,” it really should be. Following a difficult upbringing during which he was homeless for a time, he joined the Army and attended college on the GI bill. He went on to graduate from Wichita State University and Washburn University before going into practice as a civil rights lawyer. He owns guns and looks natural in a trucker hat.

In a Reddit AMA, Thompson said he was “inspired to run by Bernie” and talked about “progressive values” like universal healthcare, education, and a $15/hour minimum wage. He also spoke in favor of taxing and legalizing marijuana, regulating Wall Street and overturning Citizens United. It’s no surprise he received the endorsement of Our Revolution, the progressive political action organization spun out of Sanders’ candidacy.

After beating an establishment Democrat in the primary, Thompson promised to take on Trump and the Republicans, as well as the state’s unpopular Republican governor Sam Brownback and Kansas-headquartered oligarchs the Koch brothers.

In one campaign ad, Thompson shoots an AR-15 rifle at a target before delivering a broad, class-based appeal: “People of all colors, all races, all religions, they want the basic same thing … they want to be able to provide for their family, provide a good education for their kids. We’ve got to get back to this country being about the working class family.”

While his candidacy initially seemed like a long shot in a district that had re-elected Pompeo just last year with 60.7% of the vote, in the weeks before the election, the race grew unexpectedly close.

This led to a sudden infusion of cash from the National Republican Congressional Committee to Thompson’s opponent Ron Estes, who in the end raised $459,000, $130,000 of it from the NRCC. He also received massive donations from representatives of big business and help from such national figures as Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, Ted Cruz, and the president himself, who tweeted about the race.

Estes spent much of his money on TV attack ads, like the one that claimed Thompson supports using tax dollars to fund late term abortions, as well as abortions performed because parents don’t like the gender of their baby.

Given our current political climate, you’d think the Democrats would have jumped at the chance to take back a Congressional seat and demonstrate opposition to Trump, but you’d be wrong. While Thompson managed to raise $292,000 without his party’s help, 95% of which came from individuals, neither the DNC, DCCC, nor even the Kansas Democratic Party would help him grow that total in any substantial way. His campaign requested $20,000 from the state Democratic Party and was denied.

They later relented and gave him $3,000. (According to the FEC, the Party had about $145,000 on hand.) The national Democratic Party gave him nothing until the day before the election, when it graced him with some live calls and robo-calls. He lost by seven percentage points.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Perez confirmed the DNC would not be giving Thompson a dime. “We can make progress in Kansas,” he said. “There are thousands of elections every year, though. Can we invest in all of them? That would require a major increase in funds.” Fact check: the DNC has a fund just for Congressional elections, of which there are just ten this year.

Contrast this with what Perez said just a few months earlier when he promised “a 50-state strategy” complete with “rural outreach and organizers in every zip code.” In a post-victory interview with NPR, he specifically name checked Kansas as a place Democrats could win. Why the sudden about face?

In defending their decision, party mouthpieces have taken the absurd line that giving Thompson money would have actually hurt his chances of winning, because then everyone would have known he’s a Democrat, and Kansans hate Democrats. (Let’s take a moment to appreciate these are the same people who keep saying the party doesn’t need a new direction.)

“You do not get to the single digits in a district like this if you’re a nationalized Democrat,” DCCC communications director Meredith Kelly told The Huffington Post. “End of story. That’s just the way it is. There are just certain races where it is not helpful to be attached to the national D.C. Democrats.” End of story, idiot.

Nobody must have told Kelly that Thompson was already attached to the “national DC Democrats” by virtue of being in their party, a fact Estes was happy to exploit in an attack ad that showed him waist deep in a literal swamp he hoped to drain.

“The liberals are trying to steal this election by supporting a Bernie Sanders backed lawyer, because they know he will vote how Nancy Pelosi tells him to,” he claimed. Seems Thompson got all the bad parts of being a Democrat this time around, and none of the good ones.

One person the party does not think will be hurt by their help is Jon Ossoff, who is running in a similarly red, but much wealthier, district in Georgia. To date, the DNC has raised some $8.3m for him and has committed to sending nine field staffers to organize on-the-ground efforts.

Although he is young, he’s an acolyte of the Democratic establishment, having worked for Representatives John Lewis and Hank Johnson, and he endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primary. He went to Georgetown followed by the London School of Economics and speaks fluent French. He has the support of several Hollywood celebrities.

Democrats think Ossoff is just the guy to bring his affluent suburban district back into the fold. (Clearly, losing a national election was not enough to reverse course on that most doomed of 2016 strategies: trading blue collar whites for wealthy, suburban ones.)

Georgia Democratic Party spokesman Michael Smith said this is the state organization’s chance to “deliver the White House its first electoral defeat.” Liberal bloggers are wetting their pants over this “weather vane” of early Trump backlash. It’s like Thompson’s campaign never even happened.

By refusing to fund the campaigns of anyone but centrist, establishment shills, the Democratic Party aims to make the Berniecrats’ lack of political viability a self-fulfilling prophecy: starve their campaigns of resources so they can’t win, then point to said losses as examples of why they can’t win.

If that means a few more red seats in Congress, so be it. The more they do this, though, the less of Bernie’s “political revolution” will be absorbed by the Democratic Party and the more will go shooting off into third parties and direct action.

Feel free to keep eating your own, Democrats. At this rate, we’ll have a socialist party in no time.

*The original version of this article referred to Joe Pompeo. It has since been changed to Mike Pompeo.

 

ALTERNET

A Call for a Populist Left

ACTIVISM

This Country Is Up for Grabs:

The only thing that will beat Trump is a genuinely left populist movement.

Waterkeeper Alliance and the Catawba, Cape Fear, Yadkin, French Broad, and Waccamaw Riverkeepers banded together to expose coal ash pollution and file citizen suits against Duke
Photo Credit: Waterkeeper Alliance

Shock

It’s November 10, 2016, two days after Election Day. On Fulton Street in Bed-Stuy, it feels like someone or something has died, and the silence is so heavy that even the thick, solid brownstones seem to be sagging under its weight. The eyes I meet on the street are haggard, as if they’ve been up all night fighting some new and violent truth, and I feel just as bowled over by this truth as anyone else. It surprises me that my lack of faith in this country, its systems and its flag have not insulated me more — that my cynicism has not done a better job of protecting me from this heartbreak.

I wonder how this day is being experienced by those on whom this nation’s brutalities have always laid more heavily — those who, perhaps, have always known America better than I do. It’s not that I thought this place was what it claimed to be, but I did think we were at a different stage in its history. It feels like waking up late at night on the subway home, realizing you’ve been on the wrong train all along. I wonder whether the trajectory of America has been abruptly altered, or merely revealed. And today it occurs to me that King’s arc of the moral universe is indeed long, but perhaps it doesn’t bend toward justice at all, but just bends. I feel a sharp pang of helplessness, and my body calls up a recollection of another time I felt this way, some years ago, when I first began to retreat.

Retreat

It’s 2004, and I’m a senior in high school. Bush is president. The U.S. has recently paid for a coup to overthrow a democratically elected government in Haiti. Before that, Afghanistan and Iraq, the Patriot Act and Extraordinary Rendition. On and on it goes, like some horrifying roller coaster you can’t get off. And the flags. The flags are everywhere now, laying claim to every crack and crevice of public life: Street corners and cranes and front doors and windows. They have even made their way inside my own home, screaming out through the television screen.

All of this transforms me. I find a pair of quirky, radical high school history teachers who take me under their wings, read Noam Chomsky and Malcolm X and Emma Goldman, and ultimately, I join the movement — specifically the anti-war movement. We march in the streets, shout at the top of our lungs, piss off our parents, and curse out our leaders. We are fierce, courageous and earnest, but honestly, most of the time it feels like the war is a gigantic, lumbering elephant and we are mosquitoes, barely even cracking skin. We have some of the biggest demonstrations in world history, and hundreds of thousands of people die anyway. It’s hard to describe the collective shame and helplessness that this kind of failure elicits in us, but I feel it in my body every day ,  in hardened eyes, slumped shoulders, an armored chest.

This country is doomed, we think. These people are too far-gone, we say. They call us anti-American, and in our defiance, we agree; we say that they can have their f**king America. Even the word itself erases an entire continent to our south. We don’t need it. If America is Bush, the war machine, austerity, the prison system, bombs at abortion clinics and mosques, Guantanamo, and Halliburton, then we don’t want anything to do with it anyway. If America is genocide and slavery and empire, then it was never ours to begin with. Besides, we have visions of freedom that span beyond these borders.

This sort of rejection seems like the only reasonable thing to do, the only way to make sense of history and the present; perhaps, even, it is the only way to survive this kind of loss. But for me, it is also the beginning of a long retreat.

I stop paying attention to electoral politics, stop thinking of the state as an avenue for any sort of change, stop even wanting to intervene in it, much less reform it. I stop thinking about scale as a relevant factor in our organizing, stop talking politics with people who aren’t in the movement, stop even reading the news. I join a left that seems, every day, to drift further and further away from trying to build political power, away from attempting to win over the public, away from working class people, and deeper into a bubble of its own. We have our own organizations, our own publications, our own trainings, our own spaces, and no need for anyone else. We find belonging in lack of belonging, and it protects us.

We do good work, learn important lessons, and have big dreams. But in the end, so many of those dreams remain our little secret, tucked safely away, out of sight to the rest of the world; and really, the rest of the world is out of sight to us too.

Challenge

It’s the morning of February 3, 2017. I’m at my desk at home in Brooklyn, sunlight creeping through the blinds on the window to my left. I’m hovering between work emails and Facebook, following the rabbit hole of the Bodega Strike, in which thousands of bodega owners and workers from across New York City, — most of them Yemeni and Muslim ,  have gone on strike and gathered at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall to protest the immigration ban. The images show a jarring sea of brown people waving American flags. I watch the videos, and the deafening chants of “USA! USA!” vibrate through my speakers.

The flags blind me. An old reflex jumps from my body, transporting me back to 2004, when this country suffocated me with its flags, and I snap my laptop shut. I am struck by the competing emotions surging through me — admiration, humility, inspiration, repulsion, confusion, shame.

How can these people, of all people, find ownership, belonging, and even love in a place like this? Maybe they don’t get it, I think. Maybe they wave the flag for safety from those who speak most loudly in its name, act most violently on its behalf; perhaps this is what they think they have to do survive. Or maybe they really do love this place, even through the heartbreak. Or maybe they want to love it, and their flag-waving is not a celebration of the vision of the founding fathers but a calling into existence of a dream not yet born. Maybe it’s just better than the homes they left behind.

Or maybe they are being strategic. Maybe they know, better even than most of the organized left, that this titanic crisis in which we find ourselves today is also perhaps the grandest opportunity we will see in generations. Maybe they can see that this country is up for grabs.

Possibility

The system is unstable. A self-proclaimed socialist almost won the Democratic Party nomination, and a right wing populist insurgency has entered into government, effectively displacing the Republican establishment and delivering a devastating blow to the status quo of the Democratic Party as well. Some 40% of the voting population wants this president impeached, and Bernie Sanders is literally the most popular politician in the country. There is an opposition to Trump organically rising up beyond both the Democrats and the organized left alike — in the streets, the courts, even the White House itself. What’s more, the right wing offensive underway will likely create even further instability — more deportations, more black and brown people locked up, more debt, more unemployment, more pipelines on indigenous land, more policies that hurt women and queer and trans folks, more impacts of climate change, more surveillance, more war.

We can expect more crisis. But where there is crisis, there is also opportunity, and our opponents know this. As Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine teaches us, crisis is part of their playbook.

For Trump, a deepening crisis is an opportunity to continue barreling forward as planned; after all, crisis has always been part of his narrative. He will blame it on his political enemies and those communities already under attack, and use it to expand his agenda. The rest of the Republican Party, the defense industry, and much of the business class, will likely go along with it, unless and until they think the ship is actually sinking. The white nationalists and other far right wingers coming out of the woodwork in droves will use it as an opportunity to keep pulling the whole political map in their direction; they now have a man in the White House to help them do it.

For establishment Democrats — as well as for Republicans who defect if and when the instability deepens enough to effectively incapacitate the administration — the crisis will provide the opportunity to name Trump as the problem, while preserving business-as-usual. If we get rid of him, they’ll tell us, everything can go back to normal. Normal will be ushered in by corporate Democrats and “moderate” Republicans, protecting many of the same interests, featuring a reversal of only the most egregious elements of Trump’s policies, and keeping in tact the rest — much of which was already enshrined by the administrations that came before this one.

But as Alicia GarzaJonathan Matthew SmuckerGeorge LakeyKeeanga-Yahmatta Taylor, and many other leaders and mentors are telling us, this crisis is an opportunity for the left too. It’s an opportunity to grow and become popular, an opportunity to build visionary organizations and multi-issue movements that go on the offensive. It is an opportunity both to take the streets, and also take over real levers of power. It is our chance to reject both Trump’s white economic nationalism and the corporate Democrats’ multicultural neoliberalism — to bring to life a new kind of politic that combines racial, gender, and economic justice to unite the majority of the population against the elite. It is a chance to build a mass movement that has equity and solidarity at its core, that takes leadership from those impacted by the systems we’re fighting, that works for all of us. It is a golden opportunity to finally translate our proven ability to shift the national discourse into a concrete capacity to actually achieve our own purpose — to move from having influence to having real power.

This crisis is, in the end, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the left to lead. The big question, then, is whether we will be willing to do so.

Ambivalence

All of this possibility flies through my mind as I think about the bodega strikers. I open my laptop again, take a deep breath and stare my ambivalence straight in the face.

I think back on that grand rejection I was part of as a younger activist — remember how honest it felt, remember the history lessons that informed it. I wonder how I can possibly hope to belong to a place like this, how I can identify with a dream that has caused so much pain to so many people. I know, also, that to be a popular movement, we will have to make a bold claim that this place belongs to us instead of them, and I wonder if it’s really possible for me claim this place belongs to me, when everything I know here stands on land stolen from people who were murdered for its theft, where everything I touch was built with labor extracted from people brought there in chains, where so much of it is made of wealth taken from around the world at gunpoint.

It occurs to me that it is a huge risk to identify with this place and its mythology, to be popular, to enter into struggle over the whole of this country, knowing that so many of the examples of populism before us watered down their politics to accommodate the ruling class, sold out their grand visions of tomorrow for partial gains of today, abandoned those most oppressed at the finish line. It feels dangerous to grow — to welcome into our movements the many people who are becoming politicized in these times — knowing that the greater pains and burdens of entering into the delicate and never-ending experiment of solidarity will fall on those already most impacted by the system. It strikes me, too, that it’s frightening to have the kind of hope a struggle like this demands. After all, where there is hope, there is also often heartbreak.

But I know, just as well, that our past failures are not inevitable. We can embrace the malleability of this place called America, contest our enemy’s hegemony over its dreams, care about this country and this land and these people, while telling the truth about its brutal history and present, honoring the people who lived here before us, and seeing nationhood not as a barrier to internationalism, but a stepping stone towards it. We can join with the growing majority of people standing in opposition to Trump, while still going on the offensive against all of his enablers — the Republican Party whose agenda he is carrying forth, the huge corporate interests he has since installed into government, and also the Democratic Party establishment whose marriage to Wall Street helped create the conditions for this upheaval in the first place.

We can be popular, and big, and speak in a language that the public understands, while bringing a critique of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy into the mainstream, while holding up a vision for the world we can have if we fight for it, while saying words like single payer healthcare and universal basic income, even reparations and socialism. We can grow our movements dramatically, invest deeply in the transformation of the millions of people looking for a political home in this moment, and build deeply across race, class, gender, and sexuality, while still demanding more from each other, while practicing solidarity and accountability with the wisdom to know that we will fail and try again and fail better if we keep trying.

We can enter powerfully into electoral politics, build grassroots political power, take over every potential vehicle for change available to us, while still insisting that movements are what really drive social change, that nothing can replace the hard organizing it takes to bring people together to liberate themselves, that meaningful change demands powerful and uncompromising civil disobedience that removes our consent from the institutions that cause harm. And as Rebecca Solnit often often reminds us, we can be courageous enough to have hope, and we can do it while still leaving room for the inevitable heartbreaks we will experience on the way.

I still don’t know exactly what it will mean to reclaim AmericaI’m not going to hang an American flag from my window or praise our so-called founding fathers; I’m not convinced that we need to ground every thing we say in the constitution, and have no intention of standing up for the national anthem until Colin Kaepernick does. But maybe it’s simpler than all that. Maybe the important thing to recognize is that, at the heart of it all, we are being called into a massive struggle over belonging — of who gets to have it and who doesn’t.

Arundhati Roy writes, “To call someone anti-American, indeed, to be anti-American, is not just racist, it’s a failure of the imagination.” And as I think back now on my past retreat from America, I know that no matter how justified, no matter how grounded it was in principle and history, there was also a secret, scared underbelly there — the very fear of imagination Roy highlights. I can still find traces today of what I felt then: A helpless anger, an arrogance covering up shame, a lack of confidence to step outside the comfort of my leftist bubble, a deep and paralyzing fear produced by my smallness in the shadow of a towering enemy. Now, years later, I know to call this tendency the politics of powerlessness, and it suddenly hits me that instead of fighting over this place and its future, I let my enemy have it.

In the end, only a genuinely liberatory popular movement can defeat Trump and the right-wing populist tidal wave he rode in on. Only a truly left populist movement can ensure that this regime not only falls, but also takes the entire Republican Party and the establishment Democrats along with it. Only a movement like that will be powerful enough to actually reorganize this society, so that it meets both the very real material needs and the soaring potentials of the people in it. In order for the left to provide the leadership that is required in this moment, we will have to learn to say this country’s name out loud — say that it belongs to us, in all the complicated ways that the many giants before us have said it, from Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, to Fannie Lou Hamer and Howard Zinn, from Ann Braden and Dr. King, to James and Grace Lee Boggs. Ultimately, we will have to do a better job imagining; we will have to tell a story about America that gives meaning and home and a sense of belonging to the millions of people who are ready to fight for the bigger, better, bolder dreams that are waiting for us at the tips of our fingers.

Reimagining

America — both its past and its future — is a story that can be written a thousand different ways, and our opponent knows this. That is why the fascists and would-be dictators, the wealthy oligarchs and Wall Street politicians alike, always claim to speak for the whole — for that great, big AmericaThey wrap themselves up in the flag, project a vision for the future of this entire country, and call up people’s greatest fears and deepest dreams. The country they describe is not for most of us. But they say they will make it great — or great again — and that promise floats up into the air and captures imaginations, encapsulates real pains and longings, speaks into existence that grand possibility for which people are willing to do the most beautiful and heinous things alike.

To cede the simple truth of this nation’s possibility to our enemy is a massive shirking of responsibility. It relegates us to the margins of political life, which, in turn, dooms the people we love, the planet we live on, and the values we cherish. It is a failure to show up to the field of battle, which doesn’t mean the war doesn’t take place, only that we’ve surrendered before it has even begun.

Yes, America is the Trail of Tears and chattel slavery, the Ludlow Massacre and Jim Crow, Hiroshima and bloody interventions around the world. But it is also slave rebellions and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Flint sit-down strike and the occupation at Wounded Knee, the Stonewall Riot and the uprising at Attica. It is Occupy and the Movement for Black Lives, the immigrant justice movement and the uprising at Standing Rock, the Bernie wave and the climate movement. America is working class, and indigenous, and Muslim, and queer. It is undocumented, and black, and Sikh, and trans. It is the 99%, and women and immigrants. It is all of us.

Perhaps we are not the America they planned for, but we are, as much as anything else, the America that could be. And in the end, that is the choice before us: We will either build a fierce, honest, vibrant, populist left, take responsibility for this country, call our America into existence, and lead, or we will lose — not just this America and our loved ones in it, but all the Americas that might have been, and the people we might have become.

Yotam Marom is an organizer, writer, facilitator, director of the Wildfire Project, and a founding member of IfNotNow. 

http://www.alternet.org/activism/country-grabs-call-populist-left?akid=15421.265072.uJ6Kqb&rd=1&src=newsletter1075469&t=16

How Did America’s Wealth Inequality Reach This Level of Toxic?

BOOKS
We are just beginning to understand one further dimension of toxic inequality: a devastating emotional and physiological phenomenon we might call “toxic inequality syndrome.”

Photo Credit: nuvolanevicata / Shutterstock

The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future by Thomas M. Shapiro. Copyright © 2017. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.:

In recent years, as living standards for many families have declined and productivity, income, and wealth gains have flowed to the very top, a new conversation about inequality has emerged in the United States. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in the fall of 2011, splashed inequality across the front pages and provided space for discussions about historically high income and wealth disparities and their causes. The movement pitted the wealthiest and most powerful 1 percent against 99 percent of Americans. Thomas Piketty’s best-selling 2014 book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, brought attention to a different kind of inequality with a focus on capital. Yet many popular and academic accounts of inequality, spurred by media coverage and the emerging national discourse, continued to focus on income disparities, economic class, and the mega-rich. A pre-occupation with income led to an insufficient understanding of the new inequality that left wealth out of the picture. President Barack Obama provided perhaps the crowning moment in this new public attention to economic inequality when he proclaimed in a December 2014 speech that inequality “is the defining challenge of our time.” But the president’s speech referenced income inequality eleven times and wealth inequality once. Leaving wealth out of the conversation is a crucial mistake, giving fodder to those who would make personal poverty the result of personal failings.

Wealth inequality in the United States is uncommonly high. The wealthiest 1 percent owned 42 percent of all wealth in 2012 and took in 18 percent of all income. Each year the Allianz Group, the world’s largest financial service company, calculates each country’s Gini coefficient—a measure of inequality in which zero indicates perfect equality and one hundred perfect inequality, or one person owning all the wealth. In 2015, the United States had the highest wealth inequality among industrialized nations, with a score of 80.56. Allianz dubbed the USA the “Unequal States of America.”

Wealth concentration has followed a U-shaped pattern over the last hundred years. It was high in the beginning of the twentieth century, with wealth inequality reaching its previous peak during the Depression, in 1929. It fell from 1929 to 1978 and has continuously increased since then. By 2012, the share of wealth owned by the top 0.1 percent was three times higher than in the late 1970s, growing from 7 percent in 1979 to 22 percent in 2012. The bottom 90 percent’s wealth share has steadily declined since the mid-1980s.

The rise of wealth inequality is almost entirely due to the increase in the top 0.1 percent’s wealth share. The steady decline in the bottom 90 percent’s wealth share has struck middle-class families in particular. Half the population has less than $500 in savings.

Wealth is not just a matter of money. Wealth is also about power, status, opportunity, identity, and self-image. Wealth confers transformative advantages, while lack of it brings tremendous disadvantages. A family’s income reflects educational and occupational achievements, but wealth is needed to solidify these achievements to build a solid foundation of economic security. Wealth is a fundamental pillar of economic security, and without it, hard-won gains are easily lost.

The explanations for economic inequality are many. One prominent line holds that individual values and characteristics either promote or hinder achievement and prosperity. Inequality, in this view, results from poor people’s laziness and lack of work ethic, the decline of traditional marriage, an influx of unskilled, uneducated immigrants, and dependence on welfare. Our interviews contradict such arguments—the people we spoke with, rich and poor, had broadly similar values and aspirations—and reveal instead the importance of policy and institutional factors. Other theories focus on such factors as market forces in a globalizing economy, technological change, policies, and politics.

To take a different tack, we must understand wealth and income inequality together with racial inequality. Despite recent attention to racial disparities in policing, mass deportation, persistent residential segregation, attacks on voting rights, and other manifestations of racial injustice, the conversation about widening economic inequality largely leaves out race, as if that gap’s causes, its harshest consequences, and its potential solutions are race neutral. Whether they focus on the widening gulf between the very top and various segments further down the distribution ladder, on the fortunes of the bottom 40 percent, on the dwindling of the middle class, or simply on the growing share garnered by the best-off, traditional accounts emphasize class and economics as the central (and sometimes only) explanation. As a result, much of our national discourse about inequality sees disparities as universals that impact all groups in the same ways, and many of the policy ideas proposed to address it fail to recognize the racially disparate distributional impact of universal-sounding solutions. Recent movements such as the Color of Change, the Dreamers, and Black Lives Matter are vigorously trying to recenter the inequality conversation to include race, ethnicity, and immigration. I have been inspired and heartened by the new public conversation about inequality. At the same time, I am frustrated that once again it looks like attention to class is trumping a reckoning with race.

For it is crucial to understand that the trends toward greater income and wealth inequality are converging with a widening racial wealth gap. The typical African American family today has less than a dime of wealth for every dollar of wealth owned by a typical white family. The civil rights movement and the landmark legislation of the 1960s helped to open educational and professional opportunities and to produce an African American middle class. But despite these hard-won advances, as a study following the same set of families for twenty-nine years shows, the gap between white and black family wealth has widened at an alarming pace, increasing nearly threefold over the past generation (see Figure 1.1). Looking at a representative sample of Americans in 2013, the median net wealth of white families was $142,000, compared to $11,000 for African American families and $13,700 for Hispanic families. This racial wealth gap means that even black families with incomes comparable to those of white families have much less wealth to use to cushion unemployment or a personal crisis, to apply as a down payment on a home, to secure a place for their families in a strong, resource-rich neighborhood, to send their children to private schools, to start a business, or to plan for retirement.

In short, the basic pillars of economic security—wealth and income—are today distributed vastly inequitably along racial and ethnic lines. African Americans’ historical disadvantage has become baked into the American economy. African Americans are effectively stymied from generating and retaining wealth of their own not simply by continuing racial discrimination but also by senseless policies that protect existing wealth—wealth that often originated at times of even more intense racial discrimination, if not specifically from racial plunder. Race and wealth have intertwined throughout our nation’s history. Too often missing in today’s dialogue about inequality is this binding race and wealth linkage. Failure to tackle the nexus of race and wealth will lead, at best, to only small ameliorations at the worst edges of inequality.

Figure 1.1  Median Net Wealth by Race, 1984–2013

The phrase “toxic inequality” describes a powerful and unprecedented convergence: historic and rising levels of wealth and income inequality in an era of stalled mobility, intersecting with a widening racial wealth gap, all against the backdrop of changing racial and ethnic demographics.

I call this kind of inequality toxic because, over time and generations, it builds upon itself. Wealth and race map together to consolidate historic injustices, which now weave through neighborhoods and housing markets, educational institutions, and labor markets, creating an increasingly divided opportunity structure. So long as we have entrenched wealth inequality intertwined with racial inequality, we cannot even begin to bend the arc toward equity.

Toxic inequality is also noxious in that it makes these challenges harder to tackle. High levels of material inequality are inherently destabilizing, heightening social tensions. Janet Yellen, chair of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System, has warned that economic inequality “can shape [and] determine the ability of different groups to participate equally in a democracy and have grave effects on social stability over time.” Thomas Piketty argues that extremely high levels of wealth inequality are “incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies” and warns that a drift toward oligarchy is a real danger. The new inequality is especially politically poisonous because most people of all races feel stuck in place, finding it harder to believe that hard work, sacrifice, and innovation are going to pay off and lead to a better life. People are apt to look for someone to blame, and America’s changing demographics encourage racial division, resentment of other groups, and prejudice. These forces have complicated economic policymaking throughout our history, but they are especially dangerous today, given the urgent need to address the particular economic disadvantages facing people of color.

We are just beginning to understand one further dimension of toxic inequality: a phenomenon we might call “toxic inequality syndrome.” Are there emotional and even physiological consequences for families and individuals exposed to repeated, persistent economic trauma, frustrated ambitions, and cumulative downward spirals? We know that there is a strong relationship between adversity and social outcomes throughout the life course, with greater frequency of adverse events leading to worse outcomes. One adverse event increases the likelihood of a cascade of other stressful and traumatic events. Research has documented the negative impact of a wide variety of stress-inducing events, including community violence, accidents, life-threatening illnesses, loss of economic status, and incidences of racism. We also know that financial resources shield families from economic and social trauma, lessen the impact of some trauma, enable more rapid recovery, and reduce the risk of subsequent adverse events. Yet many of the families we spoke to experienced multiple forms of adversity—foreclosure, violence, unsafe neighborhoods, incarceration, disability, sudden or chronic family illness, family breakup, unemployment or loss of wages, declining living standards—without adequate wealth resources and without the sorts of family, institutional, community, or policy support that can also foster family resiliency.

America’s response to toxic inequality will set our future course for generations. The current magnitude of inequality robs the nation of human potential and promise, sapping aspirations and distorting futures. Earned achievements have become uncoupled from financial rewards and personal well-being. Frustrated ambitions and stalled social mobility foment racial anxieties. Without bold changes, we will keep heading toward greater inequality and become even more polarized along class and racial lines. The tiny segments of the population that are doing well will continue to do so, and the vast majority will try even harder just to stay in place. The rich and powerful will continue to write rules that protect and expand their vast advantages at the expense of those struggling to keep pace, especially younger adults and families and communities of color. As differences magnify, those groups facing the brunt of inequality, stalled mobility, and lost status will more critically interrogate the legitimacy of governmental and economic systems. Such an interrogation of deep structures is necessary and productive as long as it uncovers drivers of inequality. However, an explanation that does nothing more than pander to racial, ethnic, and class fears will short-circuit solutions. To avoid this bleak future and bend current trends in the direction of shared prosperity, we must transform the deep structures that foster inequality. Policy solutions must be bold, transformative, and at a scale sufficient to reach the families and communities most affected by toxic inequality.

Adapted excerpt from TOXIC INEQUALITY: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future by Thomas M. Shapiro. Copyright © 2017. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Thomas M. Shapiro is the Pokross Professor of Law and Social Policy at the Heller School, Brandeis University, where he directs the Institute on Assets and Social Policy. He is the author of four books, including The Hidden Cost of Being African American and, with Melvin Oliver, Black Wealth/White Wealth. His most recent book is Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future.

http://www.alternet.org/books/toxic-inequality-book-race-income-and-wealth?akid=15406.265072.GJAX2r&rd=1&src=newsletter1075360&t=26

Ayn Rand Rules the World: How She Conquered Silicon Valley—and Donald Trump

THE RIGHT WING
Decades after her death, the novelist is guiding America’s power brokers, from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.

Ayn Rand
Photo Credit: YouTube Screengrab

As they plough through their GCSE revision, UK students planning to take politics A-level in the autumn can comfort themselves with this thought: come September, they will be studying one thinker who does not belong in the dusty archives of ancient political theory but is achingly on trend. For the curriculum includes a new addition: the work of Ayn Rand.

It is a timely decision because Rand, who died in 1982 and was alternately ridiculed and revered throughout her lifetime, is having a moment. Long the poster girl of a particularly hardcore brand of free-market fundamentalism – the advocate of a philosophy she called “the virtue of selfishness” – Rand has always had acolytes in the conservative political classes. The Republican speaker of the US House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, is so committed a Randian, he was famous for giving every new member of his staff a copy of Rand’s gargantuan novel, Atlas Shrugged (along with Freidrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom). The story, oft-repeated, that his colleague in the US Senate, Rand Paul, owes his first name to his father Ron’s adulation of Ayn (it rhymes with “mine”) turns out to be apocryphal, but Paul describes himself as a fan all the same.

Not to be left out, Britain’s small-staters have devised their own ways of worshipping at the shrine of Ayn. Communities secretary Sajid Javid reads the courtroom scene in Rand’s The Fountainhead twice a year and has done so throughout his adult life. As a student, he read that bit aloud to the woman who is now his wife, though the exercise proved to be a one-off. As Javid recently confessed to the Spectator, she told him that if he tried that again, he would get dumped. Meanwhile, Daniel Hannan, the Tory MEP many see as the intellectual architect of Brexit, keeps a photograph of Rand on his Brussels desk.

So the devotion of Toryboys, in both their UK and US incarnations, is not new. But Rand’s philosophy of rugged, uncompromising individualism – of contempt for both the state and the lazy, conformist world of the corporate boardroom — now has a follower in the White House. What is more, there is a new legion of devotees, one whose influence over our daily lives dwarfs that of most politicians. They are the titans of tech.

So who is this new entrant on the A-level syllabus, the woman hailed by one biographer as the goddess of the market? Born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum in 1905 in St Petersburg, Russia, she saw her father impoverished and her family driven to the brink of starvation by the Soviet revolution, an experience that forged her contempt for all notions of the collective good and, especially, for the state as a mechanism for ensuring equality.

An obsessive cinemagoer, she fled to the US in 1926, swiftly making her way to Hollywood. She paid her way through a series of odd jobs, including a stint in the costume department of RKO Pictures, and landed a role as an extra in Cecil B DeMille’s The King of Kings. But writing was her passion. Broadway plays and movie scripts followed, until the breakthrough came with a novel: The Fountainhead.

Published in 1943, it tells the story of Howard Roark, an architect dedicated to the pursuit of his own vision – a man who would rather see his buildings dynamited than compromise on the perfection of his designs. All around him are mediocrities, representing either the dead hand of the state, bureaucrats serving some notional collective good, or “second handers” – corporate parasites who profit from the work and vision of others.

Then, in 1957, came Atlas Shrugged, whose Penguin Classic edition stretches to 1,184 pages. Here Roark gives way to John Galt, another capitalist genius, who leads a strike by the “men of talent” and drive, thereby depriving society of “the motor of the world”.

In those novels, and in the essays and lectures she turned to afterwards, Rand expounded – at great and repetitive length – her philosophy, soon to be taught to A-level students alongside Hobbes and Burke. Objectivism, she called it, distilled by her as the belief that “man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself”. She had lots to say about everything else too – an avowed atheist, she was dismissive of any knowledge that was not rooted in what you could see in front of your eyes. She had no patience for “instinct” or “‘intuition’ … or any form of ‘just knowing’”.

The Fountainhead was serially rejected and published to ambivalent reviews, but it became a word-of-mouth hit. Over the coming years, a cult following arose around Rand (as well as something very close to an actual cult among her inner circle, known, no doubt ironically, as the Collective). Her works struck a chord with a particular kind of reader: adolescent, male and thirsting for an ideology brimming with moral certainty. As the New Yorker said in 2009: “Most readers make their first and last trip to Galt’s Gulch – the hidden-valley paradise of born-again capitalists featured in Atlas Shrugged, its solid-gold dollar sign standing like a maypole – sometime between leaving Middle-earth and packing for college.”

But for some, objectivism stuck. Perhaps her most significant early follower was Alan Greenspan, later to serve as chairman of the US Federal Reserve for 19 years. In the 1950s, Greenspan was one of the Collective, and he would be among the mourners at her funeral in 1982, where one floral wreath was fashioned into that same 6ft dollar sign, now understood to be the logo of Randism.

Greenspan is the link between the original Rand cult and what we might think of as the second age of Rand: the Thatcher-Reagan years, when the laissez-faire, free-market philosophy went from the crankish obsession of rightwing economists to the governing credo of Anglo-American capitalism. Greenspan, appointed as the US’s central banker by Ronald Reagan in 1987, firmly believed that market forces, unimpeded, were the best mechanism for the management and distribution of a society’s resources. That view – which Greenspan would rethink after the crash of 2008-9 – rested on the assumption that economic actors behave rationally, always acting in their own self-interest. The primacy of self-interest, rather than altruism or any other nonmaterial motive, was, of course, a central tenet of Randian thought.

Put more baldly, the reason why Republicans and British Conservatives started giving each other copies of Atlas Shrugged in the 80s was that Rand seemed to grant intellectual heft to the prevailing ethos of the time. Her insistence on the “morality of rational self-interest” and “the virtue of selfishness” sounded like an upmarket version of the slogan, derived from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, that defined the era: greed is good. Rand was Gordon Gekko with A-levels.

The third age of Rand came with the financial crash and the presidency of Barack Obama that followed. Spooked by the fear that Obama was bent on expanding the state, the Tea Party and others returned to the old-time religion of rolling back government. As Rand biographer Jennifer Burns told Quartz: “In moments of liberal dominance, people turn to her because they see Atlas Shrugged as a prophecy as to what’s going to happen if the government is given too much power.”

In that context, it seemed only natural that one of the success stories of the 2012 presidential campaign was a bid for the Republican nomination by the ultra-libertarian and Rand-admiring Texas congressman Ron Paul, father of Senator Rand Paul, whose insurgent movement was a forerunner for much of what would unfold in 2016. Paul offered a radical downsizing of the federal government. Like Ayn Rand, he believed the state’s role should be limited to providing an army, a police force, a court system – and not much else.

But Rand presented a problem for US Republicans otherwise keen to embrace her legacy. She was a devout atheist, withering in her disdain for the nonobjectivist mysticism of religion. Yet, inside the Republican party, those with libertarian leanings have only been able to make headway by riding pillion with social conservatives and, specifically, white evangelical Christians. The dilemma was embodied by Paul Ryan, named as Mitt Romney’s running mate in the 2012 contest. Ryan moved fast to play down the Rand influence, preferring to say his philosophy was inspired by St Thomas Aquinas.

What of the current moment, shaping up to be the fourth age of Rand? The Randian politicians are still in place: Ryan is now boosted by a cabinet crammed with objectivists. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson named Atlas Shrugged as his favourite book, while Donald Trump’s first choice (later dropped) as labor secretary, Andy Puzder, is the CEO of a restaurant chain owned by Roark Capital Group – a private equity fund named after the hero of The Fountainhead. CIA director Mike Pompeo is another conservative who says Atlas Shrugged “really had an impact on me”.

Of course, this merely makes these men like their boss. Trump is notoriously no reader of books: he has only ever spoken about liking three works of fiction. But, inevitably, one of them was The Fountainhead. “It relates to business, beauty, life and inner emotions. That book relates to … everything,” he said last year.

Rand scholars find this affinity of Trump’s puzzling. Not least because Trump’s offer to the electorate in 2016 was not a promise of an unfettered free market. It was a pledge to make the US government an active meddler in the market, negotiating trade deals, bringing back jobs. His public bullying of big companies – pressing Ford or the air-conditioner manufacturer Carrier to keep their factories in the US – was precisely the kind of big government intrusion upon the natural rhythms of capitalism that appalled Rand.

Which brings us to the new wave of Randians, outside both politics and conventional conservatism. They are the princes of Silicon Valley, the masters of the start-up, a cadre of young Roarks and Galts, driven by their own genius to remake the world and damn the consequences.

So it should be no surprise that when Vanity Fair surveyed these tycoons of the digital age, many of them pointed to a single guiding star. Rand, the magazine suggested, might just be “the most influential figure in the industry”. When the CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, had to choose an avatar for his Twitter account in 2015, he opted for the cover of The Fountainhead. Peter Thiel, Facebook’s first major investor and a rare example of a man who straddles both Silicon Valley and Trumpworld, is a Randian. Meanwhile, Steve Jobs is said by his Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak, to have regarded Atlas Shrugged as one of his “guides in life”.

Among these new masters of the universe, the Rand influence is manifest less in party political libertarianism than in a single-minded determination to follow a personal vision, regardless of the impact. No wonder the tech companies don’t mind destroying, say, the taxi business or the traditional news media. Such concerns are beneath the young, powerful men at the top: even to listen to such concerns would be to betray the singularity of their own pure vision. It would be to break Rand’s golden rule, by which the visionary must never sacrifice himself to others.

So Rand, dead 35 years, lives again, her hand guiding the rulers of our age in both Washington and San Francisco. Hers is an ideology that denounces altruism, elevates individualism into a faith and gives a spurious moral licence to raw selfishness. That it is having a moment now is no shock. Such an ideology will find a ready audience for as long as there are human beings who feel the rush of greed and the lure of unchecked power, longing to succumb to both without guilt. Which is to say: for ever.

 

 

 

 

 

Jonathan Freedland writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, and presents BBC Radio 4’s contemporary history series, The Long View. He was named columnist of the year in the 2002 What the Papers Say awards and in 2008 was awarded the David Watt prize for journalism. He has also published seven books, including five bestselling thrillers under the name Sam Bourne. He tweets as @freedland.

http://www.alternet.org/right-wing/ayn-rand-rules-world-how-she-conquered-silicon-valley-and-donald-trump?akid=15405.265072.0dNWjk&rd=1&src=newsletter1075342&t=4