Eight billionaires control as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population

Oxfam issues report on eve of Davos conference

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17 January 2016

Eight billionaires, six of them from the United States, own as much combined wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population, some 3.6 billion people, according to the latest report on global inequality from the British-based advocacy group Oxfam.

The report was released Monday, on the eve of the annual World Economic Forum in the mountain resort of Davos, Switzerland, at which many of the ultra-rich will converge this week. The Oxfam document contains a range of figures that highlight the staggering growth of social inequality, showing that the income and wealth gap between a tiny financial elite and the rest of the world’s people is widening at an accelerating rate.

New data made available to Oxfam reveals that wealth is even more concentrated than the organization had previously believed. Last year, Oxfam reported that 62 people controlled as much wealth as the bottom half of humanity. In its latest report, the charity notes that “had this new data been available last year, it would have shown that nine billionaires owned the same wealth as the poorest half of the planet.”

Oxfam writes that since 2015, the richest 1 percent of the world’s population has owned more than the rest of the world put together, and that over the past quarter century, the top 1 percent has gained more income than the bottom 50 percent combined.

“Far from trickling down, income and wealth are being sucked upwards at an alarming rate,” the report states. It notes that the 1,810 dollar billionaires on the Forbes 2016 rich list own $6.5 trillion, “as much wealth as the bottom 70 percent of humanity.”

Over the next 20 years, some 500 people will hand over to their heirs more than $2.1 trillion, an amount larger than the gross domestic product of India, a country of 1.3 billion people.

Oxfam cites recent research by the economist Thomas Piketty and others showing that in the United States, over the past 30 years the growth in incomes of the bottom 50 percent has been zero, while the incomes of the top 1 percent have risen by 300 percent.

The same process is taking place in the world’s poorest countries. Oxfam notes that Vietnam’s richest man earns more in a day than the country’s poorest person earns in 10 years.

The report points to the systematic character of the siphoning of global wealth to the heights of society. The business sector is focused on delivering “ever higher returns to wealthy owners and top executives,” with companies “structured to dodge taxes, drive down workers’ wages and squeeze producers.”

This involves the most barbaric and criminal practices. Oxfam cites a report by the International Labour Organisation estimating that 21 million people are forced labourers, generating $150 billion in profits every year. The world’s largest garment companies all have links to cotton-spinning mills in India that routinely use the forced labour of girls.

Small farmers are also being driven into poverty: in the 1980s, cocoa farmers received 18 percent of the value of a chocolate bar, compared to just 6 percent today.

The extent of corporate power is highlighted in a number of telling statistics. In terms of revenue, 69 of the world’s largest economic entities are now corporations, not countries. The world’s 10 largest companies, including firms such as Wal-Mart, Shell and Apple, have combined revenue greater than the total government revenue of 180 countries.

Although the authors avoid any condemnation of the profit system per se, the information provided in their report amounts to a stunning verdict on the capitalist system. It highlights in facts and figures two central processes delineated by Karl Marx, the founder of modern socialism.

In Capital, Marx explains that the objective logic of the capitalist system, based on the drive for profit, is to produce ever greater wealth at one pole and poverty, misery and degradation at the other. In the Communist Manifesto, he explains that all governments are but the executive committee for managing the affairs of the capitalist class.

This is exemplified in the tax policies and other “business-friendly” measures undertaken by governments around the world. The Oxfam report notes that technology giant Apple is alleged to have paid a tax of just 0.005 percent on its European profits.

Developing countries lose around $100 billion a year as a result of outright tax dodging and the exemptions granted to companies. In Kenya, $1.1 billion is lost to government revenue every year because of exemptions, an amount nearly twice the country’s annual health budget.

Government tax policies work hand in hand with tax dodging and criminality. The report cites economist Gabriel Zucman’s estimate that $7.6 trillion of global wealth is hidden in offshore tax havens. Africa alone loses $14 billion in annual revenues because of the use of tax havens: enough to pay for health care that would save the lives of four million children and employ enough teachers to ensure that every African child went to school.

There is one significant omission from Oxfam’s discussion of accelerating inequality. It makes no mention of the critical role of the policies of the world’s major governments and central banks in handing over trillions of dollars to the banks, major corporations and financial elites through bank bailouts and the policies of “quantitative easing” since the eruption of the global financial crisis in 2008.

A discussion of these facts would raise uncomfortable political issues. The report opens by favourably citing remarks by US President Barack Obama to the UN General Assembly in 2016 that a world in which 1 percent of the population owns as much as the other 99 percent can never be stable.

But the very policies of the Obama administration have played a key role in creating this world. After rescuing the financial oligarchs from the results of their own criminal actions with massive bank bailouts, the Obama administration and the US central bank ensured their further enrichment by providing a supply of ultra-cheap money that boosted the value of their assets.

Under Obama, the decades-long growth of inequality accelerated, along with the descent of the ruling class into parasitism and criminality. He paved the way for the financial oligarchy to directly seize the reins of power, embodied in the imminent presidency of casino and real estate billionaire Donald Trump, to whom Obama will hand over the keys to the White House on Friday.

The overriding motivation behind the Oxfam report is fear of the political consequences of ever-rising inequality and a desire to deflect mounting anger over its consequences into harmless channels. It advances the perspective of a “human economy,” but maintains that this can be achieved on the basis of the capitalist market, provided corporations and governments change their mindsets.

The absurdity of this perspective, based on the long-discredited outlook of British Fabianism, which has dominated the thinking of the English middle classes for well over a century, can be seen from the fact that the report is directed to the global financial elites gathered at the Davos summit this week, with a call for them to change their ways.

The bankruptcy of this outlook is demonstrated not only by present-day facts and figures, but by historical experience. A quarter century ago, following the liquidation of the Soviet Union, the air was filled with capitalist triumphalism. Freed from the encumbrance of the USSR, and able to dominate the globe, liberal capitalist democracy was going to show humanity what it could do.

And it certainly has, creating a world marked by ever-rising inequality, the accumulation of wealth to truly obscene levels, oppression and anti-democratic forms of rule, criminality at the very heights of society, and the increasingly ominous prospect of a third world war.

This history brings into focus another anniversary: the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Despite its subsequent betrayal at the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy, the Russian Revolution demonstrated imperishably, and for all time, that a world beyond capitalism and all its social ills and malignancies is both possible and necessary. Its lessons must inform the guiding perspective for the immense social struggles that are going to erupt out of the social conditions detailed in the Oxfam report.

Nick Beams

WSWS 

Obama’s farewell address: One last round of clichés and lies

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By Niles Niemuth
11 January 2017

President Barack Obama capped his eight years in office with a vacuous and hypocritical farewell address Tuesday night delivered at the McCormick Place convention center in downtown Chicago.

The first-ever presidential farewell address delivered outside of Washington, DC had the atmospherics of an overblown, cheap spectacle. Obama strode onto the stage like a rock star, flanked by oversized American flags, a massive illuminated presidential seal and an introductory soundtrack by the rock band U2.

As with every address Obama has delivered over the last eight years, his speech in Chicago was full of clichés, his rhetoric padded with empty phrases and delivered with a false gravitas, signaled by his trademark pursed lips and affected whisper.

The speech was rife with contradictions, the starkest being the juxtaposition of Obama’s boasting of the great social progress achieved by his administration and his warning of threats to American democracy arising from ever-growing social inequality and economic insecurity.

The president declared: “If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history… if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, and take out the mastermind of 9/11… if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens—you might have said our sights were set a little too high.

“By almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.”

He made no attempt to explain why, given this impressive record of social progress and foreign policy success, his party was routed in the elections and the billionaire demagogue Donald Trump was preparing to succeed him in the White House.

A basic component of the answer, of course, is the grotesquely false rendering of his record and the state of American society as he leaves office. Hardly a week goes by without a new report on signs of extreme social crisis or ever-more obscene levels of wealth among the financial elite. Just in the past month, studies have been published showing the first decline in US life expectancy in 23 years, plunging pay for young adults, a 72 percent surge in deaths from synthetic opioids, and home ownership rates at historic lows for young people.

Other surveys have documented a $237 billion increase in the wealth of the world’s richest 200 billionaires, driven largely by the US stock market boom under Obama, and an acceleration of the transfer of wealth from the bottom half of the US population to the top one percent.

In boasting of presiding over a record number of consecutive monthly job increases, Obama neglected to mention that 94 percent of the new jobs created in the last eight years have been either part-time or temporary.

Noticeably absent from Obama’s remarks was any mention of the social conditions in the city where he was speaking, which is ravaged by high levels of poverty and unemployment, an epidemic of police killings and violence, and a skyrocketing homicide rate.

He lamented in general terms the growth of social inequality and the dangers it poses to American democracy—that is, the threat of a social explosion in the United States.

“While the top one percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many families, in inner cities and rural counties, have been left behind—the laid-off factory worker; the waitress and health care worker who struggle to pay the bills—convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful—a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.”

As always, he spoke as if none of these social ills had anything to do with the policies pursued by his administration, including severe cuts in social spending on the one side and the bailout of the banks and flooding of money into the stock market on the other.

Another piece of monumental hypocrisy was Obama’s pose of fighting to defend democracy when he has done more to destroy it than perhaps any other US president.

“Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear,” he declared. “So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are. That’s why, for the past eight years, I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firm legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, and reform our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties.”

This is from a president who has personally authorized the assassination of American citizens and thousands of others around the world with drones-fired missiles, protected and promoted those in the CIA responsible for torture, kept the prison at Guantanamo Bay open, persecuted journalists and jailed whistleblowers, militarized the police, and expanded the illegal surveillance of electronic communications.

Obama also used his farewell address take parting shots at Russia and China, lumping the war against ISIS with efforts to counter both countries, and arguing that aggressive action against the world’s second- and third-largest nuclear-armed powers was the only way to avoid war.

“[T]he fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression,” he said. “If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.”

Obama spent his eight years in office waging war abroad and war on the working class at home. With Tuesday’s speech, he passed the reins to Trump with a shrug.

WSWS

Economic nationalism and the breakdown of the post-war order

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11 January 2017

In contrast to 2016, the new year has opened with relative stability in global financial markets. A year ago, markets experienced considerable turbulence in the context of the US Federal Reserve’s decision to lift interest rates by 0.25 percentage points, a sharp downturn in the price of oil, and a plunge in bank shares.

Thus far in 2017, it has been all quiet on the financial front, with US markets continuing to hover around the record highs they reached in December in the surge triggered by Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election.

Behind the appearance of relative calm, however, major shifts have taken place that will have far-reaching consequences, not just for financial markets, but for the world economy more broadly.

One of the most significant features of 2016 was the rise of economic nationalism and the growth of right-wing nationalist and populist movements. The turn to economic nationalism is reflected in many areas of the world, but has found its sharpest expression in the “America First” policies espoused by incoming President Trump and the appointment to his cabinet of figures who openly advance this agenda, with China designated as one of the central targets.

The shift in orientation by the US ruling class has profound historical significance. One of the lessons drawn by the American ruling elites following the disasters produced by the decade of the 1930s, when the division of the world economy into currency and trading blocs led to World War II, was the need to base the post-war order on free trade, with protectionism eschewed at all cost.

What was called the “liberal” trade agenda was itself based on, and underwritten by, the unchallenged global economic dominance of American capitalism, which emerged relatively unscathed from the carnage of the Second World War, in contrast to the devastation of Europe and much of Asia. The war amplified the already dominant position of US industry and finance. American capitalism sponsored the establishment of a set of institutions and programmes—the dollar-based Bretton Woods monetary system, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the Marshall Plan—to stabilise and pry open the world market to its exports and investments and facilitate the profit-making of US corporations.

Today, after decades of protracted decline, US economic hegemony is a thing of the past and American capitalism finds itself threatened by the rise, in particular, of China. This is fundamentally what underlies the breakdown of the post-war economic order and the turn of the American ruling class to unbridled economic nationalism.

This has given rise to considerable concern about where the global economic system, and with it the entire system of political relations on which the stability of world capitalism has rested, is now headed.

Fears about the new US orientation were voiced in a column by Financial Times economics correspondent Martin Wolf published on January 6. It was headlined “The long and painful journey to world disorder.”

“It is not true that humanity cannot learn from history,” Wolf began. “It can and, in the case of the lessons of the dark period between 1914 and 1945, the west did. But it seems to have forgotten those lessons. We are living, once again, in an era of strident nationalism and xenophobia. The hopes of a brave new world of progress, harmony and democracy, raised by the market opening of the 1980s and the collapse of Soviet communism between 1989 and 1991, have turned to ashes.”

What lies ahead, he asked, for the US under a president who repudiates permanent alliances and embraces protectionism, and a battered European Union facing “illiberal democracy” in the east, Brexit, and the possibility that Marine Le Pen could be elected to the presidency in France?

Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman also devoted his first piece of the year to the same processes. Before Trump promised to “Make America Great Again,” he wrote, China, Russia and Turkey had already turned to what he called “nostalgic nationalism.” In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was leading an energetic campaign for “national revival,” while in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was combining a push to “modernise India” with an appeal to “Hindu pride.”

There was also a strong appeal to nationalism in the Brexit referendum, with the Leave campaign’s stress on a “Global Britain,” an attempt to appeal to “memories of the time when the UK was a dominant world power, not just a member of the club of 28 European nations.”

Rachman noted that it was somewhat difficult for any party in Germany to openly campaign on the slogan “Make Germany Great Again.” But while the slogan might be absent, at least to this point, similar forces are at work there—above all in key foreign policy, military and academic circles, where the assertion is heard repeatedly that Germany cannot simply function as a power within Europe, but must exercise its influence on a global scale.

The turn to economic nationalism is not rooted in the personality or psychology of Trump, Le Pen or any of the other political leaders. Nor is it simply a device by various politicians to exploit seething popular dissatisfaction with the existing economic and political order and use it for their own political advantage.

Such calculations are present, of course. But underneath the political manoeuvres and propaganda, profound objective forces are at work. These forces can be identified by reviewing the course of the world economy since the eruption of the US-based global financial crisis of 2008. This, as the World Socialist Web Site stressed at the time, was not a conjunctural downturn, but a breakdown in the functioning of the world capitalist economy.

At their first meeting in 2009, the leaders of the G-20 group of nations, representing 85 percent of the world economy, in confronting the most severe financial crisis since 1929, recognised the inherent dangers of a return to the conditions of the 1930s. From the outset, and at all subsequent meetings, they pledged to avoid protectionist and trade war measures. But the contradictions of the capitalist economy have proven to be more powerful than the pledges of capitalist politicians.

The policies enacted in response to the financial meltdown and the ensuing Great Recession were based on so-called quantitative easing, under which the world’s major central banks—the US Fed, the Bank of England, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan—pumped trillions of dollars into the financial system. These measures were accompanied in China by a massive stimulus package, based on government spending and the rapid expansion of credit.

The policies of the major central banks averted a total financial meltdown, while the Chinese stimulus provided a significant boost for commodity-exporting countries, from Latin America and Africa to Australia. For a brief period, this created the illusion that the so-called BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—could provide a new base of stability for world capitalism. That prospect proved to be short-lived.

The unprecedented injection of money into the financial system did little or nothing to promote real economic growth in the major economies, on which the BRICS countries are ultimately dependent, but simply enriched a global financial oligarchy, while the broad mass of the working class were forced to pay for the financial largesse through cuts in real wages, social programmes and living standards, amid a rise in social inequality to record levels.

In the years following the financial crisis, the central bankers and capitalist politicians insisted that the financial measures they had enacted would eventually bring about an economic recovery. But this fiction has now been well and truly exposed. Investment, the key driver of the economy, remains persistently below pre-crisis trends. Productivity is falling. Deflation has become widespread. And, most significantly, world trade growth has slowed markedly. Last September, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) noted that in 2016, the growth in world trade would fall below the rate of growth in global gross domestic product, only the second such occurrence since 1982.

The overall situation is graphically depicted by the fact that the world economy as a whole is one sixth smaller than it would have been had pre-crisis growth trends been maintained.

In response to this situation, the past year has seen, as the WTO noted, the increased use of protectionist measures, especially by the major economies, notwithstanding all the pledges to the contrary. It is within this broad economic context that Trump and his “America First” agenda, and the turn to such economic nationalist policies by other major powers, must be placed.

In the final analysis, they are the response by the ruling elites to their inability to devise any measures to promote sustainable economic growth. Consequently, the world market is increasingly becoming a battleground—a development that will become ever more apparent in the coming year.

There are striking historical parallels here. In the aftermath of the economic breakdown that led to World War I, there were numerous efforts in the decade of the 1920s to devise measures to revive the belle époque that had preceded the war. All of them failed, and the major powers responded to the contraction of the world market with a war of each against all, leading ultimately to World War II.

There are many differences between the situation today and that of 90 years ago. But the basic trends remain the same. In fact, the basic contradiction between the development of an interdependent global economy and its division into rival and conflicting nation-states has intensified.

This is reflected in the lamentations of bourgeois economic commentators such as Martin Wolf over the breakdown of globalisation. Just over a century ago, the international capitalist elites implemented their response to the breakdown of the nation-state system, unleashing on mankind the horrors of world war. Three years later, the international working class, through the conscious leadership provided by the Bolshevik Party, led by Lenin and Trotsky, gave its response to the crisis—the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, the first shot in the world socialist revolution.

There are, indeed, lessons of history that must be drawn. If mankind is to avert another catastrophe, the deepening social hostility to the present economic and political order must be transformed into a conscious struggle by the working class for the programme of international socialism, not as some kind of distant hope, but as the only viable and practical programme of the day.

Nick Beams

WSWS 

The Breakdown of Empathy and the Political Right in America

THE RIGHT WING
What child psychology can teach us about the current GOP.

Photo Credit: a katz/Shutterstock

In 1978, developmental psychologist Edward Tronick and his colleagues published a paper in the Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry that demonstrated the psychological importance of the earliest interactions between mothers and babies. The interactions of interest involved the playful, animated and reciprocal mirroring of each other’s facial expressions. Tronick’s experimental design was simple: A mother was asked to play naturally with her 6-month-old infant. The mother was instructed to suddenly make her facial expression flat and neutral; to remain completely still, for three minutes, regardless of her baby’s activity. Mothers were then told to resume normal play. The design came to be called the “still face paradigm.”

When mothers stopped their facial responses to their babies, when their faces were still, babies first anxiously strove to reconnect with their mothers. When the mothers’ faces remained neutral and still, the babies quickly showed ever-greater signs of confusion and distress, followed by a turning away from the mother, finally appearing sad and hopeless. When the mothers in the experiment were permitted to re-engage normally, their babies, after some initial protest, regained their positive affective tone and resumed their relational and imitative playfulness.

When a primary caretaker (the still-face experiments were primarily done with mothers, not fathers) fails to mirror a child’s attempts to connect and imitate, the child becomes confused and distressed, protests, and then gives up. Neurobiological research (summarized by child psychiatrist Bruce Perry and science writer Maia Szalavitz in their book, Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered), has powerfully demonstrated that in humans and other mammals, a caretaker’s attunement and engagement is necessary to foster security, self-regulation and empathy in the developing child. Parental empathy stimulates the growth of empathy in children. The infant brain is a social one and is ready to respond to an environment that is appropriately nurturing.

On the other hand, when the environment is inattentive and not empathetic, the child’s stress response system, embedded as it is in the architecture of the child’s developing nervous system (mediators in this system include oxytocin, opiate and dopamine receptors, cortisol levels and parasympathetic nerve pathways), is overwhelmed and many types of psychopathology result. Higher cognitive functions, including language, can suffer as the brain instinctively relies on more primitive regions to deal with an unresponsive environment.

The worst scenarios are ones occurring in conditions over which children have no control, such as the dangers faced by the babies in the still-face experiments. When we are powerless to prevent our nervous systems and psyches from being overwhelmed, our physical, emotional and intellectual development is disrupted. We call this trauma.

As a metaphor for adult life in contemporary society, the still-face paradigm—the helplessness intrinsic to it and the breakdown of empathy that lies at its foundation—aptly describes the experience of many people as they interact with the most important institutions in their lives, including government. And as with Tronick’s babies and mothers, when our social milieu is indifferent to our needs and inattentive to our suffering, widespread damage is done to our psyches, causing distress, anger and hopelessness. Such inattention and neglect lead to anxiety about our status and value, and a breakdown of trust in others.

The pain of the still face in American society is present all around us. People feel it while waiting for hours on the phone for technical support, or when dealing with endless voicemail menus while on hold with the phone or cable company, or waiting to get through to their own personal physician. They feel it in schools with large class sizes and rote teaching aimed only at helping students pass tests. They feel it when crumbling infrastructure makes commuting to work an endless claustrophobic nightmare. And too often, they feel it when interacting with government agencies that hold sway over important areas of their lives, such as social services, the IRS, building permit and city planning departments, or the motor vehicle department. Like Tronick’s babies, citizens who look to corporations and government for help, for a feeling of being recognized and important, are often on a fool’s errand, seeking recognition and a reciprocity that are largely absent.

This problem is greatly exaggerated by the profoundly corrosive effects of social and economic inequality. Under conditions of inequality, the vulnerability of those seeking empathy is dramatically ramped up, leading to various forms of physical and psychological breakdowns. In a classic epidemiological study by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, researchers found a strong correlation between the degree of inequality in a country (or a state, for that matter) and such problems as rates of imprisonment, violence, teenage pregnancies, obesity rates, mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and addiction, lower literacy scores, and a wide range of poor health outcomes, including reduced life expectancy. Wilkinson and Pickett’s key finding is that it is the inequality itself, and not the overall wealth of a society, that is the key factor in creating these various pathologies. Poorer places with more equality do better than wealthy ones marked by gross inequality.

Inequality makes people feel insecure, preoccupied with their relative status and standing and vulnerable to the judgment of others, and it creates a greater degree of social distance between people that deprives them of opportunities for intimate and healing experiences of recognition and empathy.

But as the still-face experiments show, human beings are primed from birth to be social, to seek out empathic and attuned responses from others, and to develop the psychobiological equipment to respond in kind. Still-face bureaucracies and the powerlessness that marks systems of income inequality contradict our very natures. As Wilkinson and Pickett put it, “For a species which thrives on friendship and enjoys cooperation and trust, which has a strong sense of fairness, which is equipped with mirror neurons allowing us to learn our way of life through a process of identification, it is clear that social structures based on inequality, inferiority and social exclusion must inflict a great deal of social pain.”

This pain is increasingly prevalent among working- and middle-class Americans who have seen their jobs lost to technology and globalization, their incomes stagnate and the promise of a better life for their children appear increasingly unlikely. Their interactions with their doctors, pharmacists, bankers, landlords, state and federal tax collectors, social service agencies, auto dealers, and cable providers are too often marked by frustration and feelings of dehumanization. Like Tronick’s infants, they can’t get anyone even to see them, much less smile at them.

To make matters worse, they also live in a meritocratic culture that blames the victim, even while these victims have little power to escape their lot. The old adage that it’s lonely at the top and that Type-A executives have more than their share of stress is false. Studies on stress show that what is most stressful isn’t being in charge but being held accountable for outcomes over which you have little or no control.

The painful interaction of inequality and indifference is especially poignant and strongly felt by groups in our society who bear the brunt of discrimination. People of color, immigrants and the LGBT community are especially traumatized by the still face of social and political invisibility, of the demeaning effects of prejudice and institutional bias. They are in the most dire need of empathy, yet they are the least likely to get it.

As studies of infants and the development of children have shown, empathy is essential to build our capacity to deal with pain and adversity and to develop into social empathic beings. Without empathy, we get overwhelmed and either go about our lives in a fight-or-flight state of hyper-vigilance or else we retreat and surrender to feelings of hopelessness and despair. Thus, while empathy depends on being accurately and frequently understood in social interactions, our society is increasingly one in which people can’t find responsive faces or attuned reliable relationships anywhere.

This absence isn’t simply an individual matter. Household size has shrunk. The average number of confidantes people have has sharply shrunk over the last few decades, from three in 1985 to two in 2004, with a full quarter of Americans reporting that they have no confidantes at all. Time spent socializing with friends or having family dinners has similarly declined. The last five decades have witnessed stunning declines in virtually every form of social and civic participation, spaces where people can encounter each other, face to face, in their communities, including churches, social clubs, the PTA, and even, according to sociologist Robert Putnam, bowling leagues.

The number of hours that children spend playing outside in unstructured activities—critical for the development of social skill and empathy—was reduced by 50 percent between 1981 and 1997, a loss compensated for by radical increases in time spent watching television or sitting in front of computer screens. On average, American kids watch two to four hours of television daily. And consider this: 43 percent of children under two watch television or videos every day. Children need face-to-face human interaction. Digital substitutes just won’t do.

On nearly all measures of social life, Americans tend to have fewer and lower quality interactions with one another than their parents or grandparents did. Isolation has grown along with inequality. They go together. Societies with more economic fairness and equality are ones that encourage and privilege cooperation and mutuality. Societies like ours that are so exceptionally unequal encourage and privilege aggression, paranoia and competitiveness, traits associated with the so-called rugged individualist. While sometimes adaptive, such an ideal also makes a virtue out of disconnection and trauma.

The links between the failures of empathy in childhood and similar experiences in adult social and political life are not simple or straightforward. We cannot reduce white working-class anger, for example, to childhood traumas, and it is certainly true that the feelings of neglect and rejection associated with encountering the still face of social institutions are ubiquitous and not restricted to the economically disadvantaged. As I already said, people of color, the majority of the working class, endure this neglect and rejection in especially harsh ways. Race matters, but so does wealth. It remains true that wealth and income can enhance feelings of agency and control and can “buy” greater responsiveness from those we need help or support from.

To get a deeper understanding of the intersection of politics and the psychobiology of empathy and trauma, we need a deeper and more nuanced account of the interior lives of the working and middle-class people who have been left behind in our society. Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild offers such an account in her recent book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Based on her years embedded with Tea Party sympathizers and activists in southwest Louisiana, she describes what she calls the “deep story” of the white working-class people she got to know. For Hochschild, a deep story is a person’s subjective emotional experience, free of judgment and facts. It is the subjective prism through which all people—in this case, Tea Party voters—see the world.

Hochschild presents their story in a metaphorical way that represents the hopes, fears, shame, pride and resentment in the lives of her informants. It’s a story of people for whom there is no fairness; people who see the still face of government smiling on others but not on them. In fact, Hochschild’s subjects perceive the faces of many people in American society (for example, liberals living on the coasts) looking at them with disdain or contempt, not smiling in recognition or understanding.

The following is an edited version of this deep story:

You are patiently waiting in a long line leading up a hill… you are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian, and predominantly male, some with college degrees, some not.

Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line. Many in the back of the line are people of color—poor, young and old, mainly without college degrees. It’s scary to look back; there are so many behind you. In principle you wish them well. Still, you’ve waited a long time, worked hard and the line is barely moving. You deserve to move forward a little faster.

You’ve suffered long hours, layoffs and exposure to dangerous chemicals at work, and received reduced pensions. You have shown moral character through trial by fire, and the American dream of prosperity and security is a reward for all of this, showing who you have been and are—a badge of honor. Will I get a raise? Are there good jobs for us all? 

The line is moving backward! You haven’t gotten a raise in years and your income has dropped. You’re not a complainer. But this line isn’t moving.

Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you! You’re following the rules. They aren’t. Some are black… affirmative action. Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers—where will it end? If you are a man, [there are] women demanding the right to the men’s jobs… and overpaid public sector employees… who seem to you to work shorter hours in more secure and overpaid jobs, enjoying larger pensions than yours… Four million Syrian refugees fleeing war and chaos… even the brown pelican which is protected as an endangered species… even they have cut in line. You feel betrayed.

In this story, the economy and government are indifferent to the people in the middle of the line. Their sacrifice is ignored. And other people seem to be getting the smiles that should shine on them. It’s as if the mother in the still-face paradigm not only didn’t respond to her child’s attempt to engage, but instead looked the other way and smiled at someone else. Their resentments are stereotyped as intrinsically racist or misogynist, while their own claim to victimhood is discounted.

While this story is not only racist, it clearly taps into racist sentiments. It is important to be clear about the difference between the subjective experience of white working-class men and the reality. Poor and middle-class whites have been sensitized to the sounds of racist dog-whistles for generations. The right-wing media machine, one that has reached its zenith in the Trump campaign, has stoked the fires of the scapegoating reflex that always seems to lie just beneath the surface of the psyches of victimized whites. It’s important to pause and recognize that the propagandistic xenophobia of the right has helped propagate the deep story Hochschild so empathetically tells. No one, in fact, is actually “cutting in line”—not people of color, immigrants or LGBT people. While it is still important to understand the subjective experience of her subjects in the deepest possible way, we must also recognize the play of hidden ideologies.

The failure of our institutions to empathize with the plight of the middle and working classes, to recognize their sacrifice and reward their hard work is traumatic. It is the same type of trauma that children experience when their caretakers are preoccupied or rejecting. The trauma erodes trust. It overwhelms systems that people have developed to deal with stress and creates psychological suffering and illness.

Adults, like children, try to cope with the stress of failures of recognition in the best ways they can. They certainly get anxious and depressed and may turn to drugs and alcohol to manage these painful feelings. In addition, when social trust is weakened and people are isolated, they try to find ways to belong, to be part of a community. The Tea Party is one such community. Others turn to their church communities. Their social brains seek an experience of “we” and often do so by creating a fantasy of a “them” whom they can devalue and fight. Tribalism draws on our need for relatedness, but tragically, can also pervert it. Rejected by employers and government, they reject and demean others. All the while, they are trying to deal with the pain, powerlessness and lack of empathy they experience in their social lives.

Donald Trump clearly spoke to this pain. He empathized with the traumatic losses and helplessness of the white middle and working classes. He helped them feel part of something bigger than themselves, a movement that combatted their isolation. And he helped restore their feeling of belonging by positioning them against demeaned others, primarily immigrants and countries on the other end of “horrible trade deals.”

The research on the development of empathy and the trauma resulting from its absence, on the links between economic inequality and physical and psychological suffering, and on the corrosive effects of social isolation has to lead progressives to renew their campaign for radical reforms of our economy and politics. The research by Edward Tronick and others on the development of empathy and the trauma resulting from its absence has to lead us to support families in every way possible such that parents have the time and resources to empathetically connect with their children. Wilkinson and Pickett’s research on the harmful effects of economic inequality should force us to make redistribution the centerpiece of our political program, just as it was for Bernie Sanders. Their research clearly shows us that greater equality can ameliorate a wide range of suffering.

The fact that our society disconnects us from each other means that we have to seek common ground with the people on the other side of what Hochschild calls the “empathy wall.” We have to communicate to them that we not only feel their pain, but that we share it, and that in the end, we are all in this together.

Michael Bader is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is the author of “More Than Bread and Butter: A Psychologist Speaks to Progressives About What People Really Need in Order to Win and Change the World” (Blurb, 2015).

 

Alternet

Can American Fascism Be Stopped?

ELECTION 2016
Trump’s win was both a perfect storm and the culmination of long-term trends.

Photo Credit: Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock.com

It is hard to contemplate the new administration without experiencing alarm bordering on despair: Alarm about the risks of war, the fate of constitutional democracy, the devastation of a century of social progress. Trump’s populism was a total fraud. Every single Trump appointment has come from the pool of far-right conservatives, crackpots, and billionaire kleptocrats. More alarming still is the man himself—his vanity, impulsivity, and willful ignorance, combined with an intuitive genius as a demagogue. A petulant fifth-grader with nuclear weapons will now control the awesome power of the U.S. government.

One has to nourish the hope that Trump can yet be contained. Above all, that will take passionate and strategic engagement, not just to resist but to win, to discredit him and get him out of office while this is still a democracy. We can feel sick at heart—we would be fools not to—but despair is not an option.

We need to insist that the era we are entering is not normal, not to be normalized. Just about everything in our daily routines conspires against that imperative. Ordinary life goes on. Nothing has changed, but everything has changed. It has the menacing, surreal feel of the 1930s. We are caught somewhere between the weary fatalism of T.S. Eliot’s hollow men and W.H. Auden’s haunting poem “September 1, 1939,” the day World War II began:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
….
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie  

I. How Did This Happen?

The Sunday before the election, a dear friend was rushed into emergency surgery. She survived and fully recovered, but it was a very close call. On the following Thursday, she was aroused from a medically induced coma. Like Rip van Winkle, she awoke to a revolution. Among her first words were, “Did we just have a coup d’état?”

Yes, my dear, we did. The coup had three ingredients: the flipping of an American election by Vladimir Putin; the suppression of hundreds of thousands of would-be voters; and the intervention of FBI Director James Comey to discredit an active presidential candidate, not once but twice. We have a true constitutional crisis, both in the character of the man who was elected and the fraudulent election. The new president has no legitimacy, but there is no process to dislodge him.

Suppose the situation had been reversed? Suppose Hillary Clinton had narrowly won the Electoral College while Donald Trump had won the popular vote by three million? What would Trump have said about a stolen election? Would he have urged his supporters to take to the streets? Would Congress have immediately moved to schedule more hearings on Clinton’s emails, and greeted her inauguration with a bill of impeachment? Paradoxically, there is the appearance of less of a legitimacy crisis with Trump having won rather than having lost.

History is a convergence of deep forces and random events, lucky or unlucky. The ascension of Donald Trump needs to be understood as both. If you limit your analysis to the election itself, you might reassure yourself that 2016 was a fluke—a perfect storm of bad breaks: email hell; meddling by both Russian and U.S. police agencies; Trump as a stunningly talented demagogue; a blemished establishment figure as Democratic nominee; allowing a bizarre billionaire to pose as faux-populist avenger. But it was also the culmination of longer-term trends that weakened democracy and destroyed the New Deal social contract.

For Trump to win, the media had to play into his hands. The press did not know what to do with a candidate who dwelled in his own parallel factual universe. The quest for balance gave equal play to Clinton’s relatively minor sins and Trump’s grotesqueries.

The cable channels covered Trump both as an amusing freak and as a conventional presidential contender. Both roles served his purposes. Once a Trump story became the outrage of the week, it could be discarded as yesterday’s news. Revelations that would have sunk an ordinary candidate were dispatched relatively early, never to be heard again. Did Trump University swindle thousands of students? Did Trump cheat his contractors? Grope women? Call Mexicans rapists? Propose a religious test for immigrants and refugees? Mock Muslim Gold Star parents? Did Trump really say that maybe the “Second Amendment people” could take care of Hillary? Yeah, yeah, we know all that. Old story.

What neither the media nor the Clinton campaign quite grasped was that disaffection ran so deep in much of America that the more outrageous Trump was, the more his supporters loved it. Was his language coarse? Anyone who watches TV or goes to the movies has heard worse. He mowed down the Republican field by breaking all the rules; well, maybe America needs that sort of strongman. He insulted the entire establishment, just as millions of ordinary people felt insulted by elites who talked down to them, and they loved that Trump was a bully because they could believe he was bullying on their behalf.

And once voters believed that, they were already in Trump’s post-fact world. Strategic framing theory has demonstrated through brain experiments that once you have accepted the framing of a proposition, evidence doesn’t matter. Did Trump stiff the hard-working contractors on his hotel projects? Maybe they did a lousy job. Did he brag about grabbing women “by the pussy”? That’s just guy talk. Six bankruptcies? Smart businessman—maybe he can fix the national debt. And so on. Trump took the art of cognitive dissonance to a whole new level. He altered reality so regularly that trying to challenge his views was like punching a vast fog of cotton candy.

One statistic is worth pondering long and hard. Hillary lost a majority of white women. How could that possibly be? Are most American women still victims of false consciousness? Did their husbands browbeat them into supporting Trump? I don’t think so. Clinton’s identification with a political and financial elite that Middle America came to detest proved more important than her gender breakthrough. The Clinton campaign compounded the problem by giving too much emphasis to the presumed rising electorate of people who identify by oppressed group, and not enough to a broader electorate losing income and status and feeling little stake in American democracy.

But that story has roots that date back at least three decades. Since the 1970s, the post-Roosevelt social contract that once served the vast majority of Americans has been under siege. In their embrace of one-way globalization, both parties declined to insist on a trading system of true reciprocity. American manufacturing was sacrificed to the mercantilism of other nations that were valued as Cold War allies. American finance became the dominant influence, economically and politically.

As AFL-CIO chief economist William Spriggs points out, the argument about why Democrats lost the white working class misses the point. The working class is substantially nonwhite. In the 2016 election, Democrats underperformed among the entire working class—white, black, Hispanic, Asian—relative to the Obama vote and to the vote Democrats should have gained among the non-rich.

The debate about whether Trump voters in the heartland were blue-collar workers or the fearful middle class also misses the point. When factory towns become ghost towns, the entire community goes down and the entire community feels betrayed. The proposition that the Democratic Party is the party of regular, working Americans is no longer credible to much of America.

The sense of a collapsing social contract went hand in hand with the erosion of American democracy, both in a civics-book sense and in a political economy sense. In a market economy, democracy is the only counterweight the people have to keep elites from making off with too much of the pie. Over the past several decades, money has crowded out real grassroots politics, causing politicians to spend more time cultivating fat cats than meeting with constituents. Mass membership organizations that were once robust have turned into letterhead groups, run by professional staff, without the sort of democratically run chapter organizations that were common in our grandparents’ day. The AARP is an insurance marketing operation disguised as an advocacy group for seniors. It has no local chapters. The labor movement, once the epitome of a democratically run mass organization by and for working people, has been decimated.

According to research by the political scientist Kay Schlozman and colleagues, there is almost a perfect correlation between intensity of civil and political participation and level of income. That was not always the case, and this participatory tilt reinforces the influence of affluence, in the phrase of political scientist Martin Gilens, at the expense of regular people. No wonder government, the Democratic Party, and democracy itself all lost legitimacy, opening the door to a Trump.

In short, the perfect storm of 2016 had been brewing for a third of a century.

II. Is Donald Trump an American Fascist?

Fascism, classically, includes a charismatic strongman who speaks directly to the mystical People, over the heads of the squabbling politicians who ruined the Nation. Or as Donald Trump put it at the Republican National Convention, “I am your voice. … I alone can fix it.” (Check.)

Fascism scapegoats some demonized other, or sets of others. (Check.)

Fascism can begin as illiberal democracy and mutate into full-blown tyranny, Mussolini-style. Or fascism can preserve the forms but eviscerate the realities of democracy, à la Putin. (Check.)

Fascism attracts unstable personalities, both the maximum leader himself and his more extreme followers. (Check.)

Fascists are superb at getting followers to believe what Adolf Hitler was the first to call the “big lie.” Repeat it often enough, people believe it. Whether it is true ceases to matter. Truth becomes subjective. (Check.)

Fascism papers over contradictions. Hitler, a short, swarthy Austrian, exalted the blond, blue-eyed German ideal. Silvio Berlusconi, a notoriously corrupt billionaire, mixed business interests with the business of government. Yet he was lionized by ordinary Italians fed up with the state’s corruption. Believers are willfully blind. (Check.)

Fascists use mobs or the threat of mobs to intimidate or physically assault opponents and silence critics. Hitler had his Brownshirts private militia of stormtroopers before he became chancellor. Then it became part of the state. The internet adds a new wrinkle. Trump impulsively uses tweets to incite cyber-mobs. When Trump personally attacked Chuck Jones, the president of United Steelworkers Local 1999, Jones got threatening phone calls. Journalists who have been attacked for criticizing Trump have been subjected to vile personal threats from Trump’s thugs. And all of this before he had state power.

America is an open society (or it has been). If Trump wants to sic mobs on us, either digitally or live, we are sitting ducks. Suddenly, any critic is in the same position as blacks early in the civil-rights era. A lynch mob could show up at your door, egged on by the local sheriff. Only the sheriff is now president of the United States. (Check.)

Fascists are not just charismatic but entertaining. Juan Domingo Perón and his wife, Eva, put on a terrific show. Likewise Benito Mussolini. And of course Hitler. They were so compelling to their followers that the contradictions were effectively invisible. (Check.)

One such contradiction is fascism’s habit of both bashing business and climbing into bed with business. Though fascists often condemn an international bankers’ conspiracy, fascists work with corporate elites. And business, either naïvely or cynically, often hopes to use fascists—to restore order, to create a favorable business climate, to help domestic business against imports, and to repress free labor unions. German industry and finance supported Hitler and thrived under Hitler. Much of Italy’s corporatist state, with heavy state financing and business-government interlocks, was developed under Mussolini. (Check.)

Despite a lot of blather about democracy and capitalism logically reinforcing each other because of common norms of transparency and rule of law, when push comes to shove capitalists are a weak firebreak against fascism. (Tom Friedman, take note.) As the financial collapse showed, rules are made to be gamed; transparency is for suckers.

We’ve known for a century that capitalists get along fine with dictators in third-world settings—such leaders operate a better business climate than messy democracies. Likewise at home. (Check—and maybe checkmate.)

Fascism also steals the left’s clothes. Fascists sponsor public-works projects and expand social benefits. “Nazi” was an abbreviation for National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Hitler ran a prodigious welfare state, as well as extensive public improvements. Here, however, Trump may botch the necessary tightrope act, because the bread is turning out to be far more meager than the circus. It’s not clear how long psychic income will substitute for real income.

There are two other key respects in which Trump is not a classic fascist. He did not come to office as candidate of a new out-party. His hostile takeover of the Republican Party will produce complications. Moreover, fascists usually take power with a clear agenda. Other than his own vanity, Trump doesn’t have a coherent agenda beyond vague slogans. Incoming Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Vice President–elect Mike Pence are staffing Trump’s cabinet with conventional billionaire conservatives. But that’s not exactly the Tea Party’s cup of tea, nor is the bizarre alliance with Putin.

An astute observation is ascribed to Mark Twain: It is easier to fool people than to convince them they’ve been fooled. True enough, but the contradictions are piling up. Even hardcore Trump voters are starting to experience buyer’s remorse.

III. Undoing the Folded Lie

The first line of defense, surprisingly, may be other Republicans. As the CIA-Putin episode suggests, we are in a fateful race between Republican opportunism and the deeper concern of at least some Republicans for the republic; between Trump’s assumption that he was elected dictator and collapsing approval ratings—that may yet give pause to some of his allies—as well as the dawning realization that Trump is even crazier than they thought. The Republican view of Trump may be coming full circle, from contempt to ingratiation and back to contempt.

Several leading Republican senators have drawn the line at Trump’s rejection of the CIA and his footsie with Putin. And while Republicans may want to cut public spending, the plans of designated Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price of Georgia to make drastic cuts not just in welfare but in Social Security and Medicare will not sit well either with Trump voters or with several Republican senators. And some, such as Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, may not want to turn the EPA over to a leading climate denier.

Trump’s designs on Obamacare spell big losses for hospitals, which are in every congressional district. His version of economic nationalism will wreak havoc with supply chains without doing anything real for American workers. It will backfire if he keeps attacking Boeing, one of America’s few remaining export champions. Tragically, we can’t rely on big business to defend democracy, but we can expect business to fiercely defend its own interests.

In the short run, Trump’s combination of tax cuts and deregulation may produce an economic boom. But a majority of Federal Reserve governors have been spoiling for an excuse to raise interest rates. The widened deficit will give them one. Higher rates, in turn, will slow the economy, increase the value of the dollar and thus widen the trade deficit. Tighter money will also threaten the latest asset bubble in real estate and stocks. We could even see another financial crisis. This is a time to defend core democratic institutions, to amplify all of the contradictions between who Trump pretends to be and who he is. The Democrats need to force Republican legislators to take as many awkward, coalition-splitting votes as possible. They need to put forward affirmative policies that are far more attractive to workaday voters than Trump’s. They need to take some actions of conscience that could also be good politics, such as fervently defending the Dreamers. For the long term, they need to defend and expand a free society, beginning with Obama’s reported efforts on gerrymandering, which could be expanded to a general defense of democracy. Obama could play a far larger role as leader of the opposition. He is a counter–role model to Trump.

But one should not minimize the perils. Trump will wield a massive amount of executive power. This is a man with a short fuse and a long enemies list. As I wrote in a piece last summer that I assumed was merely a passing nightmare, titled “Donald Trump’s Constitution,” he can use the power of the presidency to conduct vast surveillance, threaten the commercial interests of the free press, selectively prosecute, and further weaken the labor movement while his allies in Congress change the ground rules of federalism to undermine progressive policies of blue states and cities. Trump will float above cadres of conservative professionals with detailed playbooks. They will try to back-load the impact of unpopular policies such as deep cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

Even so, Trump may be too impaired to function as a competent leader. Mario Cuomo famously observed that you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. By analogy, Trump may campaign in an alternative, post-fact universe, but he will govern in a world constrained by reality. Missteps and plummeting public support will give his Republican allies second thoughts.

The words attributed to martyr Joe Hill, “Don’t mourn, organize,” were never more urgent. Obama’s audacious, maybe naïve, hope of bridging divides was crushed by Republican cynicism. The post-Trump consensus must be both tough and progressive, for nothing else will bring back the support of working Americans who felt deserted by the presidential Democratic Party.

The more fundamental challenge is to defend democracy itself. Trump can restrict voting rights, but he is unlikely to cancel the elections of 2018 or 2020. With a sour electorate still in an anti-incumbent mood, the incumbent will be Trump. He can’t prevail by promising that things will be great. He will have a record to defend, an all-Republican record. An abbreviated boom could well fizzle by 2018 or 2020. But with the Justice Department as the ministry of voter suppression, progressives can’t prevail by winning by a point or two. It will take a steal-proof margin—a blowout win of ten to fifteen points.

My friend, who narrowly survived urgent surgery, recovered. It is asking a lot to hope that American democracy will make a full recovery. Here at the Prospect, All we have is a voiceto undo the folded lie.

Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He writes columns for the Huffington Post, the Boston Globe and the New York Times international edition. 

http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/can-american-fascism-be-stopped?akid=15019.265072.FfDum2&rd=1&src=newsletter1069107&t=4

The United States of Inequality

inequality_rect

20 December 2016

Earlier this month, economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, leading experts on global inequality, released a groundbreaking study on the growth of income inequality in the United States between 1946 and 2016.

While the economists’ earlier studies made substantial advances in documenting inequality in the United States, the most unequal developed country in the world, this is the first survey claiming to “capture 100 percent of national income,” including the impact of taxation, social programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and income from capital gains.

The result is a fuller picture of social inequality in the United States than any previous attempts. The conclusions are staggering, revealing that over the course of the past four decades there has occurred one of the most rapid upward redistributions of income in modern history.

The economists found that the pre-tax share of national income received by the bottom half of the US population has been cut nearly in half since 1980, from 20 percent to 12 percent, while the income share of the top one percent has nearly doubled, from 12 percent to 20 percent. “The two groups have basically switched their income shares,” the authors note, “with 8 points of national income transferred from the bottom 50 percent to the top 1 percent.”

The study documents a sharp change between 1946-1980 and 1980 to the present. In the first period, the pre-tax incomes of the bottom 50 percent of earners more than doubled, growing by 102 percent, while the incomes of the top 1 percent increased by only 47 percent and the top 0.001 percent by 57 percent.

Since 1980, however, the incomes of the bottom 50 percent of earners have stagnated at about $16,000 a year (in current dollars), while the incomes of the top 1 percent have grown by 205 percent, and the top 0.001 percent by 636 percent.

After accounting for the impact of various tax credits and social programs, the economists found that the incomes of the bottom half of income earners increased by 21 percent since the 1980s. They note, however, that none of this increase has gone into disposable income. Rather, it is almost entirely the result of increased health care payouts from Medicare, which has simply been absorbed by the pharmaceutical giants and insurance companies engaged in price-gouging for vital health care services.

The principal factor in the surge in income inequality, particularly since 2000, has been the growth in “capital income,” that is, the stock market. The inflation of stock market bubbles has been the primary form through which the ruling class and its political representatives have engineered a massive transfer of wealth.

The figures contained in the report by Piketty, Saez and Zucman reflect historical transformations in the structure of American capitalism and class relations in the United States. The colossal growth of social inequality is bound up with the decay of American capitalism and decline in its world economic position.

Historians have often remarked that during its early days, the United States was the most socially egalitarian region of the Western world. The growth of monopolization and finance capital in the latter part of the 19th century transformed America into a land of “robber barons” at one pole and workers and immigrants whose living conditions were exposed in such works as Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle of 1906.

But along with these processes came the growth of the workers’ movement, which, largely through the efforts of socialists, fought to organize the American working class across its myriad ethnic, religious and regional divisions. The Russian Revolution of 1917 gave new impetus to these struggles, including the militant labor actions of the 1930s that led to the formation of the industrial unions.

The American ruling class, alarmed by the prospect that American workers would follow the example set by the Bolsheviks, and having at its disposal the economic might of the world’s largest and most advanced industrial economy, set out on a program of social reform exemplified by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which introduced Social Security and curbed the worst abuses of Wall Street.

The United States emerged from the Second World War as the dominant global power, commanding more than 50 percent of world economic output. By the late 1960s, however, the economic domination of American capitalism began to decline, as the economies of Europe and Asia were rebuilt. A series of economic and political crises culminated in the combination of economic stagnation and inflation of the 1970s.

The US ruling class responded by embarking on a policy of class war, deindustrialization and financialization. With President Jimmy Carter’s appointment of Paul Volcker to head the Federal Reserve in 1979, the US central bank threw the United States into a manufactured recession. After coming to power in 1981, Ronald Reagan launched a full-scale social counterrevolution, initiated by the breaking of the PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike and firing and blacklisting of the strikers. Similar policies were pursued by the ruling classes throughout the world.

The trade unions played a vital role in facilitating this offensive, isolating and betraying every attempt at resistance by the working class throughout the 1980s and incorporating themselves into the structure of corporate management and the state. By the end of the decade, the unions had transformed themselves, for all practical purposes, into arms of the companies and the government. The bureaucratic elites that dominated them devoted all their efforts to suppressing and sabotaging working class struggle.

Every subsequent administration, Democratic and Republican alike, has pursued policies that promote social inequality, including successive rounds of financial deregulation, repeated tax cuts for corporations and top income earners, the slashing of social programs, and the elimination of workplace protections.

After the 2008 financial crisis, the Obama administration accelerated these processes. The White House continued and expanded the bank bailouts initiated under the Bush administration and helped funnel trillions of dollars to Wall Street through the Federal Reserve’s “quantitative easing” programs, while working, as in the 2009 auto restructuring, to slash wages.

Under the incoming administration of President-elect Trump, the offensive against the working class will sharply intensify. The election of Trump represents something new. He has staffed his cabinet with billionaires, far-right, pro-business ideologues, and generals—all of them dedicated to the impoverishment of the working class and the ever more violent suppression of popular opposition.

But Trump does not emerge from nowhere. He is not some aberration. Rather, he is the noxious culmination of the decay of American capitalism, growth of unprecedented levels of social inequality and collapse of American democracy.

These same processes have created the objective foundations for socialist revolution. In the mid-1990s, when the Workers League in the US and the sections of the International Committee of the Fourth International in the rest of the world began to transform themselves from leagues into parties, adopting the name Socialist Equality Party, we recognized the immense revolutionary significance of “the widening gap between a small percentage of the population that enjoys unprecedented wealth and the broad mass of the working population that lives in varying degrees of economic uncertainty and distress.”

The past two decades have confirmed this prognosis. The fight against social inequality requires the building of a new political leadership, embodied in the SEP, to organize and unify the struggles of the working class on the basis of a revolutionary program. The capitalist profit system must be replaced with a society based on equality, international planning and democratic control of production—that is, socialism.

Andre Damon

WSWS

Democrats debate identity politics

identity2

By Niles Niemuth
15 December 2016

In the aftermath of the victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, a heated debate has been raging in Democratic Party circles over the efficacy of identity politics and its role in the party’s electoral debacle.

Some figures within the party and its periphery have raised concerns that the overriding focus on racial and gender politics has prevented the Democrats from making an effective appeal to broader segments of society beyond those in better-off and more privileged layers of the middle class.

In a November 18 New York Times op-ed column titled “The End of Identity Liberalism,” Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla, seeking to draw the lessons of Clinton’s loss to Trump, writes: “In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

While Clinton was “at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they related to our understanding of democracy,” he asserts, “when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT and women voters at every stop.”

This focus on identity was a “strategic mistake,” Lilla writes. He calls instead for a “post-identity” liberalism that places a greater emphasis on civic duty and a new nationalism, drawing inspiration, in part, from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Lilla’s column corresponds to remarks made by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders following the election. Sanders campaigned for Clinton after failing in his bid to win the Democratic nomination, but now he is implicitly criticizing her focus on racial and gender politics. “It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me!’” he said in a recent speech. “What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”

The actual content of Sanders’ proposals is reactionary. In the name of “taking on the corporations” he advocates an aggressive economic nationalism that echoes the “America-first” trade war program of Trump. Nor does Lilla propose any serious program to challenge the interests of the corporate elite. In his commentary he makes a vague reference to the Democrats’ long-abandoned policies of social reform, but he does so to advocate not a struggle against the corporate elite, but rather a new, “left” form of American nationalism. His “post-identity liberalism” would “speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another.”

What is most striking, however, is the hysterical response such muted criticisms have evoked. The most vociferous attack on Lilla’s article has come from Columbia University law professor Katherine M. Franke, who equates Lilla with the former head of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, in a blog post published by the Los Angeles Review of Books on November 21.

“In the new political climate we now inhabit, Duke and Lilla were contributing to the same ideological project, the former cloaked in a KKK hood, the latter in an academic gown,” Franke writes. “Both men are underwriting the whitening of American nationalism, and the re-centering of white lives as lives that matter most in the US. Duke is happy to own the white supremacy of his statements, while Lilla’s op-ed does the more nefarious background work of making white supremacy respectable. Again.”

For Franke, any move away from a politics based on racial and gender identity is equivalent to the promotion of racism and misogyny. “Let me be blunt: this kind of liberalism is a liberalism of white supremacy,” she declares. “It is a liberalism that regards the efforts of people of color and women to call out forms of power that sustain white supremacy and patriarchy as a distraction. It is a liberalism that figures the lives and interests of white men as the neutral, unmarked terrain around which a politics of ‘common interest’ can and should be built.”

These remarks are echoed by Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman, who denounces criticism of identity politics as the “primal scream of the straight white male.” She argues that those who want to “emphasise what we have in common instead of focusing on the differences” have a “delightfully kumbaya view of the world.”

Journalist Tasneem Raja, in a commentary published on National Public Radio’s Code Switch blog, which is dedicated to racial and identity politics, rejects Lilla’s criticisms as support for white supremacy. She accuses Lilla of being “keen on pulling the plug on conversations about multiculturalism and diversity” and thereby unconsciously playing “right into the hands of the newly emboldened neo-Nazis who helped put Trump in office…”

The unhinged response to Lilla’s column reflects entrenched social interests. Franke speaks on behalf of a layer of American academics for whom the politics of identity is a central mechanism for accessing positions of affluence and privilege.

Identity politics has become an entrenched industry. Many of its professional proponents have high-paying academic positions in black and gender studies. Such institutions are funded to the tune of billions of dollars and politically tied to the Democratic Party and corporate America.

According to her university biography, Franke’s research is focused on feminist, queer and critical race theory. She is the director of Columbia University’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, a member of the Executive Committee for the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality, and a member of the Steering Committee for the Center for the Study of Social Difference.

The relationship of the Democratic Party–and bourgeois politics as a whole–to identity politics is not accidental or secondary. The fixation on the politics of race and gender is inextricably bound up with the protracted shift of the Democratic Party to the right, in line with the drive by the ruling class to claw back all of the gains that workers won through bitter struggle, particularly in the 1930s and the decades following the Second World War.

For the past half century, as it abandoned any commitment to social reform, the Democratic Party adopted identity politics and programs such as Affirmative Action as its modus operandi, building up around it a privileged layer of the upper-middle class on this basis. This period has at the same time seen a historic growth in social inequality, including, and especially, within minority groups and among women.

Between 2005 and 2013, black households earning more than $75,000 were the fastest growing income group in the country, while the top one percent possessed more than 200 percent the wealth of the average black family. Despite the enrichment of this small but substantial and influential layer, the vast majority of African Americans remain deeply impoverished. Half of black households, nearly 7 million people, have little to no household worth.

At the same time, large parts of the country populated by supposedly privileged white workers, particularly in the so called Rust Belt states where Trump defeated Clinton, have been devastated economically by deindustrialization.

Identity politics found its consummate expression in the Clinton campaign, which was based on an alliance of Wall Street, the military-intelligence apparatus and the right-wing purveyors of racial and gender politics.

The proponents of identity politics such as Franke are opposed to economic and social equality. They regard any orientation to working people on a class basis as a threat to their own racial- or gender-based privileges. They are deeply hostile to the working class—black and Latino as well as white.

The anger that these forces direct toward Lilla will be turned with even greater intensity against a politically independent movement of the working class

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/12/15/iden-d15.html