It’s ever-increasingly clear that the Republicans and the Democrats are really just two opposing factions within a single plutocratic party. Their official platforms vary considerably, of course, and their favorite dead horses to beat are different dead horses. But in the long run, they both hold the same basic principles.
Both parties hold that American spending on the military is appropriate, and attempts to cut that spending in any significant degree are met with extreme opposition.
Both parties agree that unqualified support for the Israeli state is a vital part of American foreign policy.
Both parties agree that the “Global War on Terror” is an essential piece of American foreign policy, and that the American military should not be withdrawn from either of our current wars or from any significant number of our countless foreign bases.
Both parties agree that the president, without a declaration of war from Congress, is free to send the American military on adventures that he sees fit, and that defunding such adventures when, very belatedly, they meet with one or the other faction’s disapproval is not an appropriate remedy.
Both parties support the decriminalization of sodomy and other perversions.
Both parties believe that abortion should not be criminalized. I’m aware that this assertion is controversial, but look at the facts. Look at the major candidates presented by the Republican party, for example, in the last presidential election: John McCain; Mitt Romney; Rudy Giuliani. Look at the ostracism that was displayed for the pro-life candidates, who despite temporary success made no headway: Mike Huckabee; Ron Paul. Is there any meaningful difference in the opinions of these major candidates from those of the opposing faction? Yes, Sarah Palin is pro-life (though ludicrously bizarre in many of her other views), but that doesn’t count, because as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first vice president, John Nance Garner, correctly observed, the vice-presidency is “not worth a warm bucket of piss.” A lower half of a ticket thrown as a sop to pro-life constituencies does not a significant difference make.
Most significantly, both parties depend upon large quantities of money to gain and maintain office, and both derive the vast bulk of that money from the same corporate sponsors.
It’s the last bit that I’m concerned with. Plutocracy is rule by the wealthy; it is often used interchangeably with plutarchy, a combination of plutocracy and oligarchy, which is the rule of the few. What we have in America today is not a democracy; it is not a republic, though it has some of the remnants of the old Republic; it’s a plutarchy. But for convenience’s sake, and also because “plutocrat” sounds better than “plutarch,” I’ll be referring to it as a plutocracy.
As the aforelinked Wikipedia article correctly notes,
In a plutocracy, the degree of economic inequality is high while the level of social mobility is low. This can apply to a multitude of government systems, as the key elements of plutocracy transcend and often occur concurrently with the features of those systems.
That fits modern American society exactly. The degree of economic inequality in America is high. It’s middling-high according to the commonly used metric, the Gini coefficient (though even then it’s higher than Canada and Europe, particularly Scandinavia, as well as India and Indonesia, and it’s in the same category as such political and economic utopias as China and Malaysia), but to illustrate the enormous factual inequality only a few numbers will suffice.
The average CEO in America in 2007 made 364 times the salary of the average worker, and the average hedge fund manager makes 16,000 times that average worker’s salary. This is truly enormous, even compared to the recent past; only twenty years ago, the average CEO made only 71 times that of the average worker. This indicates that the income gap has been expanding extremely rapidly; and that is, in fact, the case.
Some very disturbing numbers from the University of California at Santa Cruz indicate an alarmingly widening wealth gap in America. From 1983 until 2007, the total net worth of the bottom 80% of the population went from 18.7% of the nation’s wealth to 15%; in the same period, the total net worth of the top 20%, minus the top 1%, went from 47.5% to 50.5%. The astute reader will notice that that’s an increase of only 3% to balance a decrease of 3.7%; that’s because a full 0.7% of that increase accrued only to the top 1% of the population. And this over less than a quarter century.
The bottom line is that the top 1% of the population controls a full 34.7% of the wealth in this country, and the top 20% controls a full 85.1% of that wealth, leaving only 14.9% of the wealth for 80% of the population. That’s less than one sixth of the wealth being owned by a full four-fifths of our population. Surely this is an enormous inequality of wealth by any reckoning.
The other characteristic of plutocracy is low social mobility. Arguably, we don’t have that in America. Anybody can become fantastically rich without starting that way, the tale goes, and that’s at least facially true. There are no institutional barriers to the child of a homeless migrant laborer becoming president of the United States, or CEO of the country’s largest corporation. We don’t have a caste system, in other words, in which citizens are formally prohibited from being mobile outside of their particular classes. However, the story really isn’t that simple.
The absence of formal, institutions prohibitions on social mobility does not make a society highly mobile; it merely indicates the absence of one means of preventing that social mobility. There are others, of course, some of which are mostly invisible. Tom Hertz of American University has published a lengthy report detailing the state of social mobility in America, and his results may be surprising to those wedded to the standard story we’ve heard so long that in America, all you need to succeed is hard work. You need, as it turns out, a bit more than that.
- Low-income children have only a 1% chance of becoming one of the wealthiest 5% of society.
- Middle-class children (by which I mean here “children born in the middle quintile of parental family income”) have only 1.8% chance of becoming one of the wealthiest 5% of society.
- “By international standards, the United States has an unusually low level of intergenerational mobility: our parents’ income is highly predictive of our incomes as adults. Intergenerational mobility in the United States is lower than in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark. Among high-income countries for which comparable estimates are available, only the United Kingdom had a lower rate of mobility than the United States.”
- The middle classes are less secure in their income, and getting less secure in it over time, as opposed to the upper classes, who are more secure in their incomes, and are getting more secure in it over time.
In other words, the United States is not particularly socially mobile, at least not as much as we think we are.
Is high social mobility even a good thing? Arguably not; however, its presence in a society in conjunction with a high inequality of wealth is a strong indicator that we’re living in a plutocracy.
So we live in a plutocracy; what does this mean? It means that the people who make the decisions are, to an overwhelming extent, the people who have money. Lots of money. We can see clear evidence of this in the sorts of laws that they end of passing. The financial bailouts are the most obvious example; twenty-three trillion dollars to ensure that the wealthy bankers and speculators are kept safe, because they’re “too big to fail,” a cost which must be born by the public even while their own private interests get the benefit. If there were any doubt that the bailouts were largely motivated by the private interests of the plutocrats, all such doubt should be gone by now.
These, of course, are merely legislators; what about the so-called regulators, who hold much of the real power in the nation? The situation there is, if possible, even more dire. The regulators of our industries are literally in the pockets of those industries, a phenomenon that is well-known in political circles and called “industry capture.” Of course, despite it being well-known nothing is ever done about it because the situation is extremely helpful to the plutocracy. Two great examples will suffice to demonstrate this condition of our regulators, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Treasury.
The Department of Agriculture is put in place to regulate, as the name implies, agriculture throughout our nation. As such, it’s supposed to regulate all of agriculture, from the largest of factory farms to the smallest family one. However, family farms have only a little money, while factory farms have a lot of it, and as such the Department of Agriculture ends up regulating family farms right out of business and factory farms into ever-increasing piles of new wealth.
Monsanto, a ridiculously huge agribusiness corporation, is a producer of many farming chemicals, most particularly the fantastically deadly herbicide Round-Up, along with seeds which are genetically engineered to be resistant to Round-Up, which it calls “Round-Up Ready” seeds. Of course, it alone can sell Round-Up Ready seeds, because it has a patent on them. It is illegal, therefore, for a farmer to save Round-Up Ready seeds from his own plants. This is a fairly standard market capture technique here, very similar to that practiced by Microsoft in the computer field, and as such isn’t particularly surprising, nor even particularly plutocratic. But things get even better from here.
Monsanto has totally dominated the Department of Agriculture, to such an extent that one reviewer has noted that “Monsanto employees and government regulatory agencies employees are the same people. Examples of this sort of thing abound. It doesn’t help, of course, that Monsanto spent nearly nine million dollars lobbying in 2008 alone, or that another Monsanto alumnus was appointed to the FDA in 2009. And yet, when the Department of Agriculture, the FDA, and similar farming-related agencies constantly propose and support laws that will make small farming more difficult or impossible, no one in authority ever asks any questions. Because these, remember, are their fellow plutocrats.
The situation is much the same with the Federal Reserve, as well as the Department of the Treasury and similar federal agencies. Goldman Sachs is the name of the game here. Henry Paulson, George Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury, was a Goldman Sachs CEO; Timothy Geithner, our current secretary, is a Goldman Sachs alum prior to serving the Federal Reserve in New York. These officials literally speak out of both sides of their mouth, saying that they want to reduce lobbyist influence while appointing lobbyists—Goldman lobbyists, of course—to their staffs. Neel Kashkari, in charge of overseeing TARP distributions, was moved to that position by Goldman Sachs alumnus Hank Paulson from—guess where?—Goldman Sachs. Joshua Bolton, John Corzine, Stephen Friedman—the list goes on and on and on. And SEC chief operating officer? Meet Adam Storch, Goldman Sachs alumnus, hired at the ripe old age of 29. Yet these are the same men who are supposed to regulate the industry that formed them.
So vote, we are told; if you don’t like the situation, throw the bums out! Vote for somebody new! The only response to this can be, for whom else shall we vote? We’re presented in nearly every election with someone from one or the other faction of the same plutocratic party. We can throw one bum out, but only by throwing another bum back in. How else can we explain the fact that Congress consistently gets less than 50% approval ratings while maintaining a higher than 85% reelection rate?
The situation is so blatantly plutocratic that the plutocrats are starting to be very open about it. Citigroup, a large investment firm which only continues to exist thanks to the plutocracy (bailouts), is the best example. Utilizing the neologism “plutonomy,” Citigroup praises the situation of “income and wealth inequality,” praising the fact that “[t]he rich are in great shape, financially.” They further note that those great religious causes of the plutocracy, globalization and the constant advance of technology, “contribute to the plutonomy,” and do so “at the expense of labor.” In other words, they benefit the rich and harm the poor. All of this, according to Citigroup, an unquestioned and honored member of the plutocracy, is a good thing.
Welcome to the plutocracy, ladies and gentlemen. You’ve been here for a while already.
So what can we, as distributists, do about this situation? The sad answer is that we can do very little, in the short run. The very nature of the plutocracy is that it’s tight-knit, hard to break into; unless you’re very rich, or at least can become very rich, you’re just not in it, which means that you’re more or less excluded from the echelons of power. But that doesn’t mean that we can do nothing.
The most important thing to do is take control of our own lives. We are men, not automatons, nor slaves of the machine on which the plutocrats are still, even now, just putting the finishing touches. Most of us may have the knowledge of infants, but we still have the souls of men. Let’s exercise them, train them, and make ourselves what we ought to be: free citizens. A society made up of free citizens itself cannot help but become free itself.
Becoming a free citizen involves some of the same things we’ve been hearing about since our teachers forced us to memorize the Bill of Rights in elementary school. (I know they don’t do that anymore; but they ought to.) We must speak our minds; speak out against the plutocracy, against capitalism, against greed, and in favor of free government, distributism, and moderation. Refuse to be a part of the plutocratic machine. Refuse to confine ourselves to the rival factions; vote for the candidate whose policies are best, not whose are least worst. It may even be feasible to seek political office ourselves, particularly on the local level.
But it also involves things that we didn’t have to memorize in elementary school. Distributism is about freedom, of course, but it’s about economic freedom in particular. There are many things we can do to fight the plutocracy that capitalism has wrought, and that fight can itself further the distributist cause. They are legion, and each distributist will undoubtedly be able to come up with many of his own. A few that immediately present themselves are as follows:
- Begin to produce. Don’t rely on the machine to produce everything for you. Even if you don’t have a lick of soil to your name, grow something in pots. Keep small livestock, like rabbits or chickens. If you are fortunate enough to have any land, no matter how little, you can grow more than you think. Study the matter. Hamilton’s Organic Gardening is the stuff of legend. Most of Logsdon’s works are also excellent, particularly Small-Scale Grain Raising, either the first or second editions; it’s persuaded me quite thoroughly that grains, particularly corn, are feasible even for a small gardener on an urban lot. Storey’s many guides, like the Guide to Raising Rabbits or Guide to Raising Chickens will probably be all the small producer needs to know. And “grazing” or foraging is available to anyone, opening up a world of food products for which we need not depend on the vagaries of an industrial and plutocratic capitalism. Few more distributist tasks can be imagined.
- Walk somewhere. Really, put the keys of the car away and just walk somewhere. We should consider locating ourselves close enough to our places of work to walk there. We must not fall into the modern trap of considering anything longer than a hundred yards too far, either; I might be a young man, but I’ve got a bad knee on one leg and a bad ankle on the other, yet I manage to walk two miles to work nearly every day (I do carpool home pretty frequently), a walk of only about half an hour. If such relocation is not possible, let us walk to the store; walk to church; or just walk for walking’s sake. See people and say hello. Look into shop windows on a main street somewhere. Walk down the street and hear the tweeting of the birds, the barking of the dogs, the cries of the children at their play. Feel the weather. The universe is not seventy-two degrees at all times, and neither should our skin be. Accustom ourselves to the real, physical world. Distributism, despite protestations from capitalists to the contrary, is fundamentally about the real; let us remember what the real is by being part of it again.
- Buy. No, that’s not a typo, but it’s not consumerism, either. Buy selectively. We should refuse to be engulfed in the “save a buck at all costs” mentality that our plutocratic society tries to thrust on us. Try to pay attention to slave-made goods, and avoid them whenever possible. Try to buy local in preference to remote. And support those businesses which respect distributist principles while declining to support those which don’t.
- Relate. Above all, don’t just buy local, be local. Relate to the people around us. Get involved in our local parishes, perhaps trying to spread distributist principles and practices through them. Get to know our neighbors; think how many of us probably can’t even name our neighbors? Next time we have a barbecue, invite a few of them over. Let’s talk to them when we see them outside; share our produce with them; listen to them tell us about their children, their hedges, the annoying person who lives on the other side of their house. These are the people we live with; it’s only decent to get to know them.
The plutocracy hates all of these things, because none of them are profitable for it. Seeking money and power before all else, these practices deprive them of both. These are the actions of a free people taking charge of their own destinies and their own communities. These are really the only ways we can effectively fight the plutocracy. Let’s embrace them, and fight to our last breath.
Praise be to Christ the King!