The System Is Rigged Because We Allow the Rich to Rig the Discourse

by on March 4, 2019 · 1 comment

in Under the Perfect Sun

By Jim Miller

In my last column on the rocket-speed escalation of economic inequality in the United States, I noted how one of the central problems we face is that “the current neoliberal ideological hegemony finds basic economic justice unimaginable.”

Of course, America is a capitalist country where the interests of the powerful shape the ideological landscape, but there have been moments in our history when counterhegemonic forces and ideas have opened space for more egalitarian thinking and politics.  For instance, the rise of both the labor and civil rights movements pushed back against and altered the status quo as have other, more short-lived but still significant eruptions of dissent.

Indeed, just last week, public school teachers in Oakland settled their contract after a successful strike that came in the wake of yet another stunning, direct action victory by West Virginia teachers who stood up to a reactionary Republican state government bent on passing punitive legislation.  And these big wins followed the stirring week-long strike by teachers in Los Angeles bucking up against a school board bought and paid for by the billionaire boys club. So, at least in some quarters, it seems the taken-for-granted austerity politics of the last few decades are being challenged.

But these teacher revolts, along with other encouraging signs of resistance in our national politics, would not be necessary had it not been for decades of successful ideological and political warfare by the right that has limited Americans’ sense of the possible.

On that subject, historian Nancy MacLean has ably chronicled the evolution of the radical right’s stealth war on democracy and what folks like the Koch brothers have done to attack what they see as the “collective gangsterism” of the majority of the population who might use the power of the government to tax the rich to serve the people .

Another astute observer of our current context is Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, who, in a recent interview in the Guardian , notes how we have come to look to the wealthy, particularly those whose philanthropy has given them a patina of progressivism, for answers to some of our biggest social problems.

Giridharadas contends that the 1% have not just rigged our economic and political systems in their favor, they have also rigged the national discourse. Thus we have an ideological landscape that favors the rich because, “elites at the very top use the conquest of language, of culture and of our common sense to cement their role and social position.”

Hence, Giridharadas argues, “elites are very successful at changing the conversation. They’re good at making certain approaches to change look bad and making others look better. For example, elites often make charter schools look better than they are or make unions look worse than they are.”

The savvy ideological maneuver here is to set the frame of reference.  When elite interests determine the discourse, things that might run counter to their interests aren’t even part of the conversation.  Hence, we get offered “solutions” that are really about not doing anything that would actually transform our current deeply inequitable social relations.  As Giridharadas puts it, “elites might introduce a new concept like ‘resilience’, a concept that sounds great but that is actually just about adjusting to societal crappiness rather than fixing it. What wealthy people do is rig the discourse.”

Therefore when we let the Bloombergs, Gates, Waltons, and other plutocrats who so frequently influence our discussions of education, racial injustice, climate change, and other pressing issues either directly or through their foundations, think tanks, or other means define the solutions to our problems, we are, in effect looking to the foxes to guard the henhouse.

In our new Gilded Age of historic inequality, perhaps the biggest insult, according to Giridharadas, is that we’ve been made fools by these wolves in sheep’s clothing:

In so many ways, we have outsourced the betterment of our world to people with a vested interest in making sure we don’t make it too, too much better. I’m going to give an example that may sound extreme to some people: what we often do today would be analogous to if we had gone around to plantation owners in Alabama in the 1800s and asked them to lead organizations advancing racial justice. It’s impossible. They can’t be the ones to do it.

So when we think about how we might address the savage inequality that afflicts us along with its myriad effects on our lives, our society, and our democracy, perhaps the first thing we need to do is stop listening to the people who most benefit from it.

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thequeenisalizard March 5, 2019 at 9:40 am



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