Of the numerous problems that face us at present, two in particular are of especial importance. One of these problems has been developing over the past few decades, the other one is more in the future than the present. And although the two problems are distinctly different one from the other, they are related in that the second problem stems, in large part, from the first one.
The first problem is that we are ever more becoming a plutocracy. We have never, of course, been a democracy—our national government having been designed with a representative branch, true, but with that branch being checked by executive and judicial branches, and the representative branch itself consisting of two parts (a House of Representatives and a Senate) to enable further checking. Still, with the addition of amendments to the Constitution over time, our national government became relatively more democratic.
However, during the past few decades formal rights have increasingly lost their value as the society has become increasingly inegalitarian. For the latter development has meant not only that income has become increasingly concentrated in “uppers,” but that the wealthy have been using their wealth to (a) get “their” people into office, to (b) lobby politicians to do what they want done, to (c) influence public opinion (by gaining control over “news” organizations, and publicizing the “research” results of “think tanks” that they have established), etc. In short, the wealthy have used their wealth to gain a high degree of control over the society—thereby earning the title plutocrats.
The (suspicious) “9/11 event” was a godsend to the Plutocracy, for it served their interests in several ways. First, it provided an excuse for further restricting our liberties, under the pretext that there was a serious threat from “terrorists” in foreign countries, thus a need for “homeland security.” Second, it provided a convenient excuse to continue America’s warlike ways, thereby providing a source of income to itself (from public monies—from whence comes the phrase “socialism for the rich”). Third, creating the specter of enemies abroad, the plutocracy was able to fan the fires of “patriotism”—thereby enlisting the support of even those who would not be benefiting from military adventurism, and making criticism of their (i.e., he plutocrats’) actions difficult.
The second problem—and one of even more potential significance—is the threat posed by global warming. Various gases in the atmosphere produce a “greenhouse effect”—meaning that they trap heat re-radiated from earth. Were those gases not present in the atmosphere, our planet would be a lifeless one—like the other planets in our solar system. But there’s such a thing as having too much of a greenhouse effect, in that an excess of those gases will result in excessive heating of earth’s atmosphere.
In the 1970s English scientist James Lovelock introduced the term “Gaia” for earth, meaning by that term that the various components of earth—physical, chemical, biological—form a self-regulating system, with negative feedback mechanisms being an integral part of that system, and acting to maintain relative stasis. Those mechanisms can be stressed, however, to the point where they “convert” into positive feedback mechanisms—thereby acting to change the very nature of the system.
Scientists have long known—going back at least to the pioneering work of Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius, over a hundred years ago—that (a) the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is a greenhouse gas, and that (b) the burning of fossil fuels increases the CO2 content of the atmosphere. What such burning in effect “accomplishes” is the removal of carbon from below the earth’s surface and its transfer to earth’s atmosphere, thereby increasing its concentration in the atmosphere.
Earth, as a self-regulating “machine” has an ability to “handle” disturbances that come its way. It’s capacity for so doing is, however, limited, and some scientists—James Lovelock among them—believe that earth either has already crossed a “tipping point” regarding global warming or is “destined” to do so soon. If and when (Lovelock would say when, not if) this occurs, there will be “runaway,” as positive feedback mechanisms come to replace negative feedback ones, and the phenomena that constitute global warming become ever more notable and noticeable.
These changes will impact human living in a variety of ways, most importantly in that they will likely result in a severe culling of the world’s population by 2100 CE. Lovelock would add that regardless of the preventive measures that we might now take, the inertia of our current way of life is such that global warming is inevitable—so that our only choice now is to adapt to environmental change as best we can. Even then, it’s likely that the world’s population (currently 7 billion) will be reduced substantially—perhaps down to about 1 billion—by 2100 CE (per Lovelock). This prediction is so important that it warrants repeating:
As James Lovelock and some other scientists state, we are now past the point of no return so far as global warming is concerned, so that although we should, of course, cease pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as soon as possible, we will not be able to prevent further warming, and our only choice is that of adaption. Even then, it’s likely that the world’s population will be culled severely by 2100 CE.
I asserted at the beginning that this second problem exists largely because of the first problem—the fact that a plutocracy currently rules our country. Various factors help explain why our economy is dependent on fossil fuels, but the fact that we continue to be dependent on such fuels is in large part attributable to the current dominance of a plutocracy. One would think that (at least some) members of the plutocracy would realize that when the “culling” referred to above occurs, they are as likely to be its victims as anyone—and probably will be more likely. Thus, it is a paradoxical fact that not only is the plutocracy not leading the way to a non-polluting future but is actually playing a key role in preventing such a future to emerge.
I suppose that there is a (somewhat) rational explanation for the plutocracy’s current inaction:
- Its members are unaware of the threat of global warming (having a fixation on the immediate present).
- They are aware of the claim that global warming is occurring but, being anti-science, refuse to accept that possibility.
- Their thinking on the matter is being clouded by their acceptance of a “free markets” ideology—so that they are convinced that “the market” will handle any problem(s) that come along.
- They accept an evangelical “Christian” theology, and therefore are convinced that because God favors them (which is why they are so “successful”!), God will not allow them to be “done in” by global warming.
- They realize (or at least sense) that (a) their position in society is dependent on the fact that the economy “runs” on fossil fuels, that (b) there is no currently-available substitute fuel, so that (c) to maintain their current position, they must continue to “go” with fossil fuels. And so they do . . . even though some of them know surely that they are leading the world to sure disaster. It almost seems that their intention is to go out “in a blaze of glory”—taking the rest of us with them. Irrational? No, insane!
Thus, it is not at all clear why the plutocracy is not in the forefront of sponsoring research to develop alternate (to fossil fuels) fuels, for not only is this not to the interests of we “commoners,” it is not to the long-run interests of the plutocrats either. For as global warming occurs, the “primitive” Inuits, for example, with have a better chance of survival than will the plutocrats.
Given that the plutocrats are, in effect, leading us toward oblivion, the question arises: If our only choice (per, e.g., Lovelock) is that of adaptation, and we will receive no help from the plutocrats in doing so, what options—if any—do we “commoners” have? So that at least we commoners will increase the chance that our grandchildren, at least, will be able to survive the ravages of global warming.
It would seem that because the plutocrats are the principal obstacle to progress on this matter, any solution to the problem would involve the removal of those plutocrats from the picture. In doing so, one argument that has been put forth (in effect, at least) is that we must begin by gaining an understanding of how the plutocracy developed.
Bill Moyers, in a recent (November 2, 2011) article (“How Wall Street Occupied America”) in The Nation argues that the “rise of the money power in our time goes back forty years,” and specifically to a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell, who was later to become a justice on the U. S. Supreme Court. Powell became shocked, during the Richard Nixon years, by the “attack . . . [that was occurring] on the American free enterprise system,” and urged his compatriots to fight this trend by (as Moyers describes it) setting “speakers loose across the country,” taking “on prominent institutions of public opinion—especially the universities, the media[,] and the courts,” keeping “television programs ‘monitored the same way textbooks should be kept under constant surveillance,’” and “above all” recognizing “that political power must be ‘assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination’ and ‘without embarrassment.’”
To pursue this program Powell urged the U. S. Chamber of Commerce to “create think tanks, legal foundations[,] and front groups of every stripe. These groups could, he said, be aligned into a united front through ‘careful long-range planning and implementation . . . consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through unified action and united organizations.’”
Moyers notes that the memo Powell prepared and disseminated had an immediate effect. The National Association of Manufacturers moved its main offices to Washington, DC, so that the number of registered lobbyists in DC increased from 175 firms in 1971 to nearly 2,500 in 1982. Organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, and Americans for Prosperity, etc., “united in pushing back against political equality and shared prosperity. They triggered an economic transformation that would in time touch every aspect of our lives.” Then in 1978, William E. Simon (who had been Nixon’s treasury secretary) published a book, A Time for Truth, that argued that “’funds generated by business’ must ‘rush by multimillions’ into conservative causes to uproot the institutions and the ‘heretical strategy’ of the New Deal. He called on ‘men of action in the capitalist world’ to mount ‘a veritable crusade’ against progressive America.”
Although Moyers painted a rather bleak picture of fascist-like developments that have been occurring in this country, he was unable to leave his article on a pessimistic note. Near the end of the article he stated “take heart from the past, and don’t ever count the people out.” He noted that during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when wealth was becoming extremely concentrated at the top, “Embattled citizens rose up . . . and organized to educate their neighbors, held rallies, made speeches, petitioned and canvassed, marched and marched again. The plowed the fields and planted the seeds—sometimes on bloody ground—that twentieth-century leaders used to restore ‘the general welfare’ as a pillar of American democracy. They laid down the now-endangered markers of a civilized society: legally ordained minimum wages, child labor laws, workers’ safety and compensation laws, pure foods and safe drugs, Social Security, Medicare[,] and rules that promote competitive markets over monopolies and cartels.” Moyers concluded by implying that “the people” will rise once again.
As much as I admire Moyers as a person, I have questions about his analysis (and am bothered by the fact that he made no reference to global warming):
- Will the people rise up as they did earlier?
- If they do, will it take the same form as earlier?
- Should it take that earlier form, or should it take some other form?
- Is Moyers correct in asserting (seemingly) that we have become a plutocracy through the efforts of certain specific individuals (e.g., Lewis Powell and William Simon)—individuals who just happened to be exceedingly evil—and that if those individuals had never been born, a plutocracy would not exist today?
Of these four questions, I regard the fourth one as the place to begin in offering comments, and here I would present a rather different sort of argument. I would argue that given a society within which competition is valued, yet the residents vary in their interests, abilities, etc., and the “starting point” is one of many firms in any given industry, the prevailing mentality (in conjunction with technological developments occurring in some firms, but not others) is likely to result, over time, in some firms “dropping out” of the competition, with some of the remaining firms then expanding in size.
Thus, within any given industry there is a “natural” tendency toward oligopoly, if not monopoly. And with this occurring in all, or most, industries, structural change is occurring in the economy, which change will likely be felt throughout the society, not just the economy. CEOs and other members of the developing plutocracy will come to recognize the increase in power at their disposal, and will begin to use it to their advantage:
- Lobbying members of the national congress.
- Working to gain control over the judicial branch.
- Gaining control over the mass media, so that their interests are furthered by those media.
- Related to this, using the giant Themis database being developed with the financial support of the Koch brothers to further their interests.
- Gaining control over the entertainment industry, so that people’s minds will be diverted from what’s transpiring in the society, and the entertainment itself will promote its interests.
- Engaging in efforts to disenfranchise people (via gerrymandering, requiring photo IDs for voting purposes, etc.).
Thus, rather than emphasizing personalities (as Moyers has), I would emphasize structural changes in the economy—changes that, for the most part, have “just happened” rather than resulted from conscious decision-making—and I would argue that that factor, in conjunction with the fact that people vary in their personalities, abilities, values, etc., makes it virtually inevitable that our society would regress to the point that it has.
My explanation for “why we are where we are” at present prevents me from being as optimistic as Moyers’s apparently is. The current situation, I believe, is very different from the “progressive” era mentioned by Moyers; and although the “Wall Street protests” of recent days give one some reason for hope, I think that one would be overly optimistic if one believed that these protests—in themselves—will have significant consequences. They have “awakened” many people, true, but unless those “awakened ones” know “where to go from here,” their “awakening” will accomplish little.
What, then, is the answer? A part of the answer is to “starve the beast” by withdrawing support from the Existing Order. From a more positive perspective I see the answer in societal system change within the shell of the Existing Order, involving movement in the direction of a cooperative eco-communitarian sort of society. As I have already commented on that matter in my e-book What Are Churches For? and in other essays on this site, I refer the reader to those other works.
I realize that it would be neither possible nor desirable to convert our society into one of cooperative eco-communities (CECs), but believe that by starting the process of societal system change with this institution in mind, one will lay a good foundation for whatever Good Society that emerges—a society that would be far more democratic than what exists at present, while also being more in tune with the natural world. As I said earlier, I agree with James Lovelock that a severe culling of the world’s population will inevitably occur between now and 2100 CE, but that if we are to maximize the number who can survive in 2100 CE, while also providing democratic living for all, we will need not only to have societal system change, but the proper such change.
- See the graph in this.
- See., e.g., this.
- People who, indeed, would be losing their lives “serving their country”—i.e., working in the interests of the plutocracy.
- I should note that “global warming” is a shorthand term that refers to several atmospheric phenomena all having a common cause—a (a) trend of increase in the global mean temperature, (b) an increase in the number of storms, (c) an increase in the number of severe storms, (d) increased variability in atmospheric conditions—both geographically and for a given location over time, (e) etc.
- Moyers bases his argument on one developed in Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class, 2010.
- It even being promoted as “good,” if not “natural,” in academia—in Microeconomics in particular.
About the author: Al Thompson works (data management) for an Engineering (Avionics) firm in Milwaukee. Click here to mail him.Related