Guest commentary: Social progress is not the result of technology, but democracy

For society to make general progress, gains in economic productivity must be translated into a broad rise in the standard of living. This can take place through increased wages, consumption, and services, decreased work weeks, expanded education, better health care, old age pensions, longer life spans, and more. Nations become developed partly by investing surplus wealth in government programs and services, and by employing those individuals whose labor is no longer needed due to increases in workplace productivity. Most government programs enhance the general standard of living; moreover, government spending counters the cyclical downturns in employment and demand that characterize industrial, corporate and financial capitalism and their destructive monopolistic and speculative practices.

But for the rich to continue to get richer, the poor to get poorer, and the middle class to remain marginally satisfied with its relative levels of consumption, indebtedness and overwork (described as "lifestyles"), the majority of Americans have to be convinced by the ownership class that our collective economic world is not and cannot be of our own democratic and purposeful making, especially regarding government spending for the public good and necessary — indeed desirable — taxation policies.

As a corollary we must also believe that our individual economic circumstances are largely the result of our own personal choices in a "free market" that — in spite of radical economic inequality, high unemployment, and ongoing institutionalized racism—somehow mystically incorporates "equal opportunity." If character cannot defeat circumstance in America, then so much the worse for character.

The mainstream media, major think tanks and large parts of academia are thus utilized to spin tall, alarmist and self-contradictory tales of ruthless global competition, technological determinism, demographic catastrophe, generational conflict, school and parental failure, personal irresponsibility, governmental corruption, public debt, entitlement bankruptcy, and inevitable public scarcity and necessary sacrifice (except for the rich). In the meantime we are sold the latest smartphone, violent video game, and next phase of our ongoing, endless, Orwellian wars. After all, we've still got an economy to run.

Usually conspicuously absent from this laundry list of allegedly implacable realities and morally urgent reckonings are the very real threats (to the species) of environmental degradation, climate change, rampant militarism, and nuclear war. Honest recognition of these might be disruptive to both capital accumulation and the American pursuit of global military hegemony — admittedly two sides of the same coin. Science and reason are to be applied to some things (hedge funds, drones) but not other things (publicly owned banks, disarmament). Moral judgments applied to single mothers cannot be applied to either Wall Street or the national security state, which by definition promote and protect our "freedoms" while not endangering "family values," foreclosures and homelessness aside.

The individuals who so ably perform this intellectual service of mystification and distraction, from "respected" political pundits to college presidents, rarely settle for low six-figure remuneration. They are therefore avid in their willingness to accept the above conventional crisis wisdom, which pleases their much wealthier masters. They are relentless in their suppression of the normal intellectual curiosity that is visited upon those of us who, through conscience or necessity, would like to better inform ourselves of the verifiable possibilities and limits that might shape intelligent personal and political choices. Critical thinking has gone too far if it questions the ideal goodness of the system for all of us, whatever the unpleasant real consequences for most of us, not to mention those in other lands.

Because our freedom under capitalism is abstractly axiomatic, pragmatic violations of individual rights can be justified, dismissed, or ignored. Thus a former Provost at the University of Illinois and current chancellor at the University of California at Davis, and someone strongly affiliated with the military-industrial research establishment, countenanced the macing of silently and nonviolently protesting students unwise enough to identify with the "99 percent."

The phony crises that dominate our political discourse, from fiscal cliffs to Social Security insolvency to educational test scores, are obfuscations of and distractions from genuine and ongoing structural crises in industrial, corporate and financial capitalism. Capitalism historically has proceeded from crisis to crisis, including the Great Depression. These crises are generally characterized by increased competition, falling rates of profit, increased financial speculation (including in land and the stock market), and the bursting of speculative bubbles that destroys wealth, investment, demand and employment.

While fortunes may be lost, the most profound effects fall on the working class. The working class now includes most of what is called the middle class, and is comprised of both the employed and unemployed, many of both groups living in poverty or what is now gently called "near poverty." Capitalists destroy workers' ability to produce, and then demand they "sacrifice" in terms of wages or employment, as well as public services.

During the post-war era, organized labor insured that workers' wages generally reflected increased productivity. In the 1970s, owners and investors fought back, famously labeling falling profits, greater general prosperity, increased civil rights, and intense popular opposition to the Vietnam War as a "crisis in democracy" — as in too much of it for the likes of those who own the country. Since then, while general workers' productivity and per capita GDP have continued to increase, median family income has stagnated. While 2/3 of wage gains have gone to the top 10 percent, the remaining third is left to the bottom 90 percent, many of whom have either seen no gains or their wages effectively lowered.

It is by choice, strategy, and policy — as well as subterfuge — that American workers have been put in competition with foreign workers while most professionals are protected; that American manufactured goods are "uncompetitive" due to the intentional over-valuation of the dollar; that technology is used to eliminate rather than create jobs; that short-changed workers go into debt to acquire the goods and services that they produce; that students go into debt to acquire the "human capital" that will allow them to be exploited by a financialized and low-wage economy; that state and local governments are beggared, government services reduced, and public employee unions vilified, while investment bankers whose Ponzi schemes have grievously and repeatedly damaged the economy are bailed out by the Federal Reserve, their coffers now full with uninvested "liquidity" and labeled "too big to fail" and "too big to prosecute."

It is in this context that federal deficits to stimulate demand and create jobs are attacked as irresponsible and "unsustainable" (even when interests payments are historically low as a percentage of GDP), and workers are told they must "sacrifice." And while "bankrupt" Social Security largely meets the demands of strict and separate accounting for decades into the future in spite of the regressive nature of payroll taxes, the Pentagon and its subsidiaries are under no such demands on even a monthly basis. Why should elderly individuals living on minimal incomes be excluded from these egregious double standards, especially double standards that have the added advantage of being inhumane on both ends of the stick?

Social progress is not naturally fore-ordained by technology, productivity, so-called free markets or self-interested rational choices; no less by exorbitant profit incentives that reward unethical behavior. The notion of general "sacrifice" is meaningless if not perverse in a context in which basic standards of equality, cooperation, fairness and justice have not been established. The present system and its media maintain authority by suppressing and subverting democratic processes that might establish such standards for the governance of economy and society. In turn it is only through democratic movements reflecting social solidarity and rational discourse that the moral illegitimacy and inherent inhumanity of the current greed-driven system can be exposed and challenged. This was learned a half-century ago; apparently it has to be learned again.

David Green (davidgreen50@gmail.com) lives in Urbana; he regularly contributes to News from Neptune on Urbana Public Television.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion
Categories (2):Editorials, Opinions

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sacrophyte wrote on February 17, 2013 at 2:02 pm

Mr. Green,

 

Thank you for a most open and critical look at the fabric of our livelihoods and societal well-being. I am curious, what 'take aways' did you intend your audience to extract from this thoughtful piece? I totally agree that a healthy sense of true democracy is severly missing from our present exercise in community, but what do we do about it?

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 17, 2013 at 2:02 pm

sacrophyte;  Thanks for cutting to the chase.  It was a thoughtful piece.  A long, thoughtful piece.  Hope that Mr. Green responds to you. 

dlgreen50 wrote on February 17, 2013 at 4:02 pm

People must come to understand that the system as it is only works to the benefit of a very few, and that it is soulless at that. We must get it through our thick skulls that the two corporate party system is a fraud, elections largely a charade. I want to make it clear that this piece was in no way an endorsement of Obama. Given that, what do we do? I think Noam Chomsky has for decades told people that there is no replacement for grass roots organizing. That's still true.

sacrophyte wrote on February 17, 2013 at 4:02 pm

I'm all for grassroots, but I don't see myself as a leader. But I definitely yearn for more grassroots. Sign me up. :) Heck, teach me how to lead a grassroots and I'll get others to come to the class.

 

My observation is that most people have just rolled over. It's easier to toss our complaints over the fence, yell at the TV and just whine when other people don't fix the problem. We don't know what true democracy looks like, and we have siloed our resources and attention into extremely small circles of influence. Most of us do not even know our neighbors that well (where they were born, plans for the summer, what they are most interested in, etc).

 

Last year I while in Indiana, I was able to visit Connor Prairie. While interacting with one of the actors (shopkeeper Mr. Whitaker), I learned how he knew everyone's business, and because of this, was able to connect endpoints in terms of resources and need. He was telling me about how so-and-so needed help bringing pigs to a market, and another resident with strong healthy sons was really short on corn and meat (which the pig-owner had), and how he (Mr. Whitaker) worked out a deal between the two. This was just one of the stories. As he was talking, a light bulb went off in my head and I realized that this was basically Asset-Based Community Development in 1830's. And it made me realize that folks having been doing this kind of thing for a very long time, just calling it something else.

 Another thing they had was the "sale of poor people". Slavery was the first thing popped into mind, but it turns out this was totally different. Basically, wealthy and/or big-hearted folks volunteer to cover basic cost-of-living expenses for those less fortunate (ie, widows, orphans, etc). It was amazing to hear about the social health inherent in this community. The linch-pin for me was that such concern for others was a requirement for frontier towns to survive - with no cooperation, the town falls apart. It makes me wonder how to scale such practices, not only for larger towns, but rolling the clock forward to our current society. These days, we have become too dependent on government. Instead, I believe we should depend on each other. But that means being humble, open and honest about our strengths and weaknesses. We have to be willing to trust others. A very rare commodity these days.

rsp wrote on February 18, 2013 at 9:02 am

Not to endorse Obama but when he was elected the first time he expected to be able to change things because of the momentum of his campaign. There was so much going on at that time and a lot of resistance. This time around the grassroots group behind it is staying connected and organizing, working on issues that are important to them as well as helping to push his agenda forward. People are thinking about the fact that he will be gone in four years and that they can't rely on him to do it alone. A lot of people seemed to think that if they just elected him magically things would change and there are others who are angry that they didn't feel connected after the first election. People are placed on calling lists, asked what's important to them, etc. They also ask what they are doing wrong. 

pattsi wrote on February 18, 2013 at 11:02 am

Issues on the federal level are, indeed, most important. That said what is happening locally needs grassroot attention because these issues impact your local tax dollars along with how the federal dollars are proposed to be used. Look at the article about the Urbana city council agenda for this evening.

Very little grassroots exists here where it is much easier to implement change than on the national level.