Why Are Americans So Docile?

| No TrackBacks
Cover of "What's the Matter with Kansas? ...

    Forbes magazine reported that, as of this month, the four hundred richest Americans enjoyed a combined  worth of $1.53 trillion, which figure had increased from 1.37 trillion over the previous year. Their combined  wealth was thus approximately equivalent to the GDP of Canada. Almost simultaneously, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the real median household income in the United States had declined to $49,995, or 2.3% from 2009 , while the nation's poverty rate had increased to 43.569 million people, or 15.1 of the total population, and the number of people without health care insurance had grown to 49.9 million.
        To add salt to the wound, the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that, as of last month, 14.0 million Americans were unemployed; 8.8 million Americans were characterized as underemployed, and about 2.6 million persons were described as "marginally attached to the labor force," which figure included 977,000 "discouraged workers." Earlier, in March of this year, the same bureau announced  that, as of that month, there were 130.738 million payroll jobs in the U.S. as opposed 130.781 million payroll jobs in January 2000. Thus, no jobs were added to the American economy during the first decade of the twenty-first century despite some 17.2 million Americans who were added to the potential workforce during that same decade.

     These extraordinary statistics have elicited hardly any detectable public reaction. Some economists have piously warned about a possible looming "lost decade", notwithstanding the above data that shows that the first decade of this century has already been lost. GOP candidates, Tea Party supporters and their corporate allies continue to insist that reduced taxes and severe austerity measures across the board are required, despite the experience of the United Kingdom's austerity program, which has increased unemployment by 85,000 since July of this year.

         To the extent to which the public at large has weighed in on any of this country's economic problems, it did so by collectively punching itself in the face in November of 2010. To punish President Obama and the Democrats for not having magically and immediately resolved the economic malaise caused by the predecessor administration, citizens - to the extent that any even bothered to vote - elected economic troglodytes and australopithecines to the Congress whose economic illiteracy and antipathy to further government fiscal stimulus have exacerbated  the country's economic problems. The few who troubled themselves to vote - and the many who continue to express antagonism toward President Obama - fail to understand that divided government only enhances the role of the wealthy special interests, who already exercise disproportionate influence over the policies of our government, and results in gridlock, paralysis, and a lack of accountability.

         So how does one explain the deafening silence from the legion of unemployed, underemployed and impoverished Americans who, by virtue of their status and their enforced leisure, surely now have the time to take to the streets, to organize politically and to make their  voices heard ?  Why, given the emergence of what former Nixon political strategist  Kevin Phillips has described as the "new indentured servitude," has the growth of plutocracy in been largely met with silence or grudging acquiescence in contemporary American culture?

          The author Jeremy Rifkin described a Newsweek poll of 750 American adults conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates in 1999. Fifty-five percent of all of the respondents under age thirty who were asked whether they believed that they would become rich, answered yes. When asked, as a follow-up question, however, how they would get rich, 71 percent of the same respondents, all of whom were employed, did not believe that there was a chance that they would become rich from their current employment. Seventy-six percent of them believed that Americans today were unwilling to work as hard at their jobs to get ahead as they were in the past. Although they disavowed the fantasies spun by Horatio Alger, Jr., in which the stock boy could become, by dint of hard work, the owner of the company, the respondents  still bought into the myth of the self-made man.   
         Since the advent of the Protestant Reformation, as R.H. Tawney and Max Weber have chronicled, there has existed a pronounced link between the dour predestination of Calvinism and a work ethic which has emphasized material success: The accumulation of wealth was incontrovertible evidence that Providence had blessed the successful and marked each as one of those as chosen for redemption. In the United States, an entire cottage industry of books from Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale and his successors have extolled the power of "positive-thinking" as the key to personal advancement and success.

         The classical liberal paradigm of the market economy no longer explains economic reality. Unfettered competition based upon free market decisions in which goods and services are sold to the most willing buyers no longer creates individual opportunity for most Americans or an abundance of business opportunities. Rather, the insecurities of the marketplace persuade those who are successful to institutionalize their advantages. Monopolies and plutocracy are the inevitable result and, as the Forbes 400 list shows, economic inequality becomes more pronounced.

         Karl Marx described the phenomenon in which the downtrodden adopt and incorporate the ideas of elite into their own world views as "false consciousness." Thomas Frank, in his insightful book, What's The Matter With Kansas?, chronicles the plight of seemingly sentient adults in his home state who have consistently voted against their own economic and family interests and unwittingly furthered the interests of Wall Street.

          Sadly, this myth of the self-made man - with its  emphasis on the importance of individual action and responsibility - has instilled within the American psyche a sense of social isolation and disconnectedness that makes it virtually impossible for many Americans to comprehend the importance and effectiveness of collective action when needed to pursue common goals. Unlike the French, who in addition to the idea of liberty, have embraced the values of equality and fraternity, the latter two concepts remain utterly alien to this country's political vocabulary.

          The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain observed that "[T]he primary reason for which men, united in political society, need the State, is the order of justice....As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice." History reminds us that social justice can never be realized so long as citizens acquiesce to the existence of a culture built upon a foundation of indifference and injustice, but history also reveals that, when suffering remains pervasive and unaddressed, over time the bonds of civility begin to unravel, and even the most privileged can no longer find shelter from the resulting chaos.         

Enhanced by Zemanta

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL: http://www.politicsofselfishness.com/cgi/mtype/mt-tb.cgi/83