Sunday, December 30, 2012

Why No New Progressive Movement in the Second Gilded Age

During the First Gilded Age of the 1890s-1920s, vast economic inequalities in America spawned two robust mass movements, the urban Progressive Movement and the farmer/laborer Populist movement--both dedicated to leveling the playing field by combating monopolistic business practices and ensuring that consumers, workers and the most vulnerable people in society have basic rights and protections against abuses of powerful corporations. 

Out of this period came the great Progressivist (Republican!) trust-buster, US President Teddy Roosevelt, who, decrying the “malefactors of great wealth,” established the Departments of Labor and Commerce to rein in big business, set about breaking up trusts in oil (namely, Standard Oil--the Microsoft of the day), railroads, and steel, and pushed through regulations of the meat and drug industries.  He was also a conservationist who declared huge tracts of lands protected from mining, logging or manufacturing interests.

After a brief return to the excesses of the Gilded Age in the 1920s, the Progressive Era returned in full force in the 1930s as a result of public outcry due to the mass deprivations caused by the Great Depression.  This paved the way for the New Deal and a host of other government programs/acts that are still in effect today, including the all-important Social Security and FDIC.

With economic inequalities again approaching historic highs, the post-1980s era has been dubbed the Second Gilded Age, where corporations largely drive public policy while the public interest is excluded from political negotiations.

Les Leopold at Alternet recently published a fantastic (and quite horrible) list economic calamities over the past year, namely: the net worth of the median income family has declined by 35 percent, going from around 100K in 2010 to 66K just two years later.  Meanwhile, the top Fortune 400 has increased their collective wealth by 200 billion USD.  4.7 million Americans have been unemployed for more than 26 weeks, and 21 percent of children live under the poverty line. 

With so much wrong and becoming worse, many are left scratching their heads over why there has been no mass political reaction or viable movement comparable to the reaction spawned by the First Gilded Age.  The weak and relatively short-lived Occupy movement notwithstanding, the biggest populist upsurge has been the Tea Party movement—aimed (incredibly) at improving the already ample corporate bottom-line at the expense of the public purse.  More for corporations and the rich and powerful, less for the common man—Tea Partiers have indeed “gone Galt.” Or something…
At a recent seminar on economic inequality, Economic Historian Brad Delong was asked this very question (why no New Progressive movement has sprung up to counter the Second Gilded Age); here is his (greatly abridged!) response:

“…And here I'm simply going to throw up my hands and say that I don’t know why…It’s in [sic] a great mystery to me.”
With all due respect to Professor Delong, I think we owe it to ourselves to try and answer this question—because it is at the core of what is wrong with American politics today.
The answer, I believe, lies in the culture of consumerism and the mainstream media. 
Decades ago, Chomsky explained that the mainstream media have the effect of distracting our attention from most important political and economic questions, focusing on relatively minor differences of opinion that draw attention away from the most pressing problems in our lives.  The media also delude the public into believing that there is a limited range of acceptable solutions to public policy problems.  With the “sphere of legitimate dissent” artificially restricted, social and economic issues are defined as trivially as possible so that the underlying power structure remains unquestioned. 
"You don’t have any other society where the educated classes are so effectively indoctrinated that controlled by a subtle propaganda system—a private system including media, intellectual opinion forming magazines and the participation of the most highly educated sections of the population.  Such people ought to be referred to as “Commissars”—for that is what their essential function is—to set up and maintain a system of doctrines and beliefs which will undermine independent thought and prevent a proper understanding and analysis of national and global institutions, issues, and policies."
Chomsky has observed that American politics is all theatre, designed to lull the public into believing that they really are in control of public policy and governance in America:
"In the US, there is basically one party—the business party.  It has two factions, called Democrats and Republicans, which are somewhat different but carry out variations on the same policies.  By and large, I am opposed to these policies.  As is most of the population."

Could anything be more true?
Just think of the stories that have dominated the news headlines over the past several weeks.  Benghazi/Susan Rice, school shooting in CT, War on Christmas, and now: FISCAL CLIFF FISCAL CLIFF FISCAL CLIFF!  Most major political debates in the mainstream media amount to the narcissism of petty tribal differences—gun control/rights, prayer in school, and the like.  This is not to say that these debates are of no consequence, only that they are of marginal importance when compared to the most urgent problems of our day. 
To illustrate, Google’s top 10 trending news stories of 2012 are (in order of popularity):
1.Hurricane Sandy
2. Kate Middleton pictures released
3 Olympics 2012
4. SOPA debate
5. Costa Concordia crash
6. Presidential Debate
7. Stratosphere jump
8. Penn State scandal
9. Trayvon Marton shooting
10.  Pussy Riot
With the exception of the Trayvon Marton shooting and the SOPA debate, these “stories” are nearly all irrelevant to the larger questions concerning our collective economic, social and political welfare.
By the way, this is what Chomsky has to say about sports:
"[Sports] offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. That keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]."
The second (related) piece of the puzzle of political apathy is mass consumerism.  Ernest Dichter argued that “the strategy of desire” was crucial for creating a stable modern society.  Thus, a common identity is forged within a national population that is built upon the products they consume.  He writes:
"To understand a stable citizen, you have to know that modern man quite often tries to work off his frustrations by spending on self-sought gratification.  Modern man is internally ready to fulfill his self-image, by purchasing products which compliment it.”
The Century of Self, the superlative documentary by celebrated film-maker Adam Curtis, “is the story of the rise of an idea that has come to dominate our society: it is the belief that the satisfaction of individual feelings and desires is our highest priority…this rise of the self was fostered and promoted by business.”  The film explains that advertisers have “used the ideas of Sigmund Freud to develop techniques to read the inner desires of individuals and then fulfill then with products.”
Thus, the modern society (no more so than in America) is built upon the commodification of human desires--turning wants into needs, which are satisfied by pre-given choices made by the corporations that make up the edifice of the modern consumer society.  People derive their private and public identities from products that in turn give them a sense of individuation and thus atomization from others in society.  With everyone seeking identity fulfillment through product purchases, there is no room for recognition, much less activation, of collective interests--even in the face of outrageous economic and social injustice.
Given these twin threats to democracy, how could any effective mass movement emerge?  So many more pressing issues demand our attention…such as whether Mischa's new BB cream really delivers on its multi-purpose promise to serve as an all-in-one tinted moisturizer/suncreen/pore-minimizer. (Yes, please!) 


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