Inequality, elite failure, and America’s long march to the right

The new issue of Tom Frank’s journal, The Baffler, has finally arrived. So far, the only article from the new issue that’s available online is this essay by Frank himself, about the recent catastrophic failures — the neoliberal fever dream of the the “New Economy,” the Iraq War, and the Wall Street-induced global financial crisis — that have wreaked havoc on our society in the new millennium. The whole thing is well worth reading. Here’s one crucial passage:

But the problem goes far beyond politics. We have become a society that can’t self-correct, that can’t address its obvious problems, that can’t pull out of its nosedive. And so to our list of disasters let us add this fourth entry: we have entered an age of folly that—for all our Facebooking and the twittling tweedle-dee-tweets of the twitterati—we can’t wake up from.

Leaving aside for the moment the cheap shots at Twitter and Facebook, I agree with most of this. I confess to having an extremely dark and pessimistic take on politics these days, and the single thing I find most terrifying about our society is exactly what Frank puts his finger on: our inability as a society to self-correct. As we’ve seen this week, even the modest improvements to our completely dysfunctional health care system that the ACA promised to deliver is currently hanging by one of the more attenuated threads on Anthony Kennedy’s judicial robes. And though there are certainly many ways that having a Democratic president and at least a partially Democratic Congress is a dramatic improvement over the alternative, the political power of the right still continues to grow. Full or partial Democratic control of our government can slow down the speed at which we accelerate to the right, but it can’t seem to alter our fundamental trajectory (and it’s an open question as to whether some Democrats actually want to). And yes, as Frank argues, the problem here is not as he (and I) used to think, mainly a cognitive failure (e.g. misunderstanding economics Iraq). It is first and foremost a moral failure.

The one thing I strongly disagree with him about is that the problem “goes far beyond politics.” On the contrary, I think the problem is totally political, or, to put it more precisely, that its root cause is in our political economy. As Chris Hayes has argued, the extreme economic inequality that characterizes our society and the misaligned incentives that result has produced elites in all segments of American life who are corrupt, incompetent, and unaccountable:

But extreme inequality of the particular kind that we have produces its own particular kind of elite pathology: it makes elites less accountable, more prone to corruption and selfdealing, more status-obsessed and less empathic, more blinkered and removed from informational feedback crucial to effective decision making. For this reason, extreme inequality produces elites that are less competent and more corrupt than a more egalitarian social order would. This is the fundamental paradoxical outcome that several decades of failed meritocratic production have revealed: As American society grows more elitist, it produces a lesser caliber of elites.

I would add that the extreme inequality that we are experiencing also produces massive alienation on the part of non-elites, which results in political apathy on the one hand, and the poisonous ressentiment that fuels right-wing populism on the other.

The inability of our society to self-correct, which Frank rightly identifies, will not take place until we have a society that redistributes its wealth in a more just and equitable manner. And here is where I quite honestly begin to despair. How do we make that happen? It will take a well-organized mass movement to produce any kind of significant change. And yet, the collective action problem this poses seems well nigh impossible to solve. What institutions do we have in this country that are strong, well-organized, and could help to build such a movement? Labor unions? Something that might come out of Occupy Wall Street? I don’t know; you tell me.

There are only two things I know for sure. One is that, historically, human beings have been shown to tolerate quite extraordinary degrees of suffering, oppression and injustice, without mobilizing on a mass scale to take action against their oppressors. The other is that history, and people, are full of surprises. Acts of resistance and political movements for change do occur, and often times they materialize when and where you least expect it. Who, after all, predicted the second wave of the women’s movement, or Solidarity, or the Arab Spring? So there is some reason for optimism after all, at least over the long term. But whether America reverses its decades-long march to the right during my lifetime, I can’t say. I have a glimmer of hope but no more than that.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee