Saturday, February 7, 2015

Pogo's Mirror

This past week, a co-worker and I were discussing the sorry state of world affairs. He had mentioned to me the fact that members of wealthy school districts in our town were attempting to forbid inter-district transfers of students, thus limiting the ability of poorer students to attend better-funded schools. That got me talking about clinical narcissism as a useful lens by which to examine the behavior of the wealthy in the United States – especially regarding the tendency of the wealthy elites, to project their own pathology onto the poor, and especially people of color among the poor.

His responses were agreeable for the most part, but one thing caught my notice, namely, the names he mentioned when he began to name who he thought these elites were. Names like the Bilderbergs and the Rothschilds were mentioned. As I listened to him, I thought (but did not say), “Why don't you also mention the Rosicrucians, the Illuminati and the Trilateral Commission?” As I thought about the names he mentioned, I thought about the tendency which is common among many Americans to blame their increasing miseries on some extremely secret cabal of anonymous elites who want to establish some sort of anti-capitalist, anti-free market, anti-“Christian”, anti-American “New World Order.”

A few days later, I found some studies published in 2014 by Oxfam (here and here) which describe the ongoing, drastic, and unrestrained concentration of the world's wealth into a rapidly shrinking number of hands. One of the most striking conclusions of these statements is that the world's 85 richest people now own the wealth of half of the world's population. And according to a 2014 Guardian article (, “the wealth of the 1% richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion, or 65 times as much as the poorest half of the world...” Indeed, the world's richest 1 percent will own more than all the rest of the world by next year, 2016. The Oxfam studies also state that “Wealthy elites have co-opted political power to rig the rules of the economic game, undermining democracy...”

What does “ownership” mean in this context? I believe it means possession of control of most of the economic flows of the global economy – possession which is backed up by a combination of private and government power. As an example, if you need software to enable a computer to perform certain tasks, and if that software can be had from only one vendor, and if that vendor allows you access to the software only under the terms of a legally enforceable rental agreement which prevents you from owning the software outright, then that vendor's claim on you counts as an element of the vendor's “wealth.” To put it another way, if the only way you can have food is by growing the food on land that is enforceably claimed by another, and if in order to grow your food, you must pay rent or become a slave to this other, then the claim this other person has on you counts as an element of his “wealth.” Now let's say that this “other” wants to own all the land on Earth, and you can get some idea of the predicament that the “non-owners” find themselves facing. Of course, you can decide that you are too poor to enjoy the luxury of computing, in which case the software vendor “loses money.” But it's kind of hard to voluntarily decide that you're too poor to eat.

Now, these uber-“owners” – are they some secret, secretive, anonymous, unidentifiable cabal? Not hardly. The researchers who produced the Oxfam studies I have cited used data from the Forbes Magazine's annual list of the world's richest 500 people. Here is the 2014 list, if anyone is interested.  Do you want to know who benefited from (and most likely paid for) the Citizens United verdict handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court? Do you want to know who bought and paid for the current crop of U.S. representatives and senators, along with state governors and legislators, judges (both Federal, State, county and municipal), news outlets and other media, school boards, and other instruments of power? Do you want to know who is responsible for the hard turn toward fascism now occurring in the United States and its English-speaking vassals, and in Europe?  Or who is now pushing the governments of the U.S. and Europe to ratify the TTIP?  According to Oxfam and Forbes Magazine, you don't have to look for secret handshakes, occult signs or mumbled passwords. The responsible parties are hiding in plain sight.

Why then can't most of us see them? Why do we go looking for secret cabals instead? As far as those of us in the English-speaking world, I think the answer is twofold. First, most of us are taught from birth to admire these people. Second, we are taught to emulate them. The teaching is oft subtle, oft blatant, and ever-present. And it has a definite effect. I am thinking just now of the book Every Man's Battle by Stephen Arterburn, et al., in which the authors spoke of how much American media are saturated by sexual content (because sex $ell$!), and how constant exposure to sexually saturated media destabilizes American morality. Arterburn is an author who writes for the American evangelical market. But Arterburn and company probably haven't thought too much about how much more American media are saturated with appeals to our lust for money and material possessions, nor has he thought about how much money-lust has penetrated the mainstream American evangelical church. Consider charlatans like Dave Ramsey and his “Financial Peace University” (“Live like nobody else now, so you can live like nobody else later!”), or the Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson, whose book is a case of one of the few times the American evangelical church started a fad that went secular instead of becoming swept up in fads that started secular and went religious.

But it gets even better, as we look beyond American evangelicalism to see how secular America teaches us to want to get rich. Think of the impact of game shows on the American psyche. Those who are old enough to remember will probably say that Let's Make A Deal was one of the finest examples of selling greed to hapless children parked in front of a TV screen. Consider all the rags-to-riches stories to which we are exposed in this country. Consider all the gossip magazines next to the checkout stands of most supermarkets. Consider the pervasiveness of state lotteries. The lotteries are especially interesting, in that they are the most blatant example of a zero-sum game (namely, if one person wins, everybody else loses). And the large numbers of people who buy lottery tickets show that many of us are not much better than drowning rats in a laboratory psychology experiment, who, when we see one rat being rescued out of a vat full of thousands of rats, will each struggle to make sure that we are the next rat to be rescued by the experimenters, rather than making other arrangements for our own rescue to the extent that we can.

In short, we are taught to be greedy, and to look at the world's richest people, not as the rotten people they actually are, but as people who have “made it” – people who inhabit a place we'd like to arrive at some day. They become for us the embodiment of the “fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love” which have been instilled in us. Rather than being revolted by these people or their methods, we have become like them – in kind, though not in degree. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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