Thursday, June 25, 2015

Remembering George Orwell's Birthday, 2015.

It is customary at The New Independent Whig to honor George Orwell’s birthday by reviewing the extent to which Mr. Orwell’s vision has come to pass. This year’s essay will devote some space to mass surveillance before turning to the main topic, being the problem of oligarchy. This is a suitably Orwellian topic, as the political regime described in Orwell’s beloved book 1984 took the form of an oligarchy. This essay won't be a mere recitation of society’s ills; some practical steps will be offered on how to fight back against oligarchy.


Last month, it was reported that those low-flying planes observed by Baltimore residents during the recent unrest were owned and operated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Each of these airplanes was loaded with a high-tech arsenal of surveillance devices including the infamous Stingray. Briefly, this is an electronic device that imitates a cellphone tower: that is, it receives all cellphone communications and discretely passes them on. A Stingray is capable of capturing and recording all cellphone calls within its radius. This is mass surveillance. This practice is illegal. The FBI does it anyway.

The American people wouldn't know that federal agencies have been using Stingrays for several years now, had it not been for Daniel Rigmaiden. Before his arrest, Mr. Rigmaiden was a tax-fraud, filing returns for dead people, choosing to remain (as he believed) “off the grid.” When he was apprehended, he became obsessed with finding out how the authorities managed to do it.
Now, one could say that only people who have something to hide need to be protective of their privacy. The case of Mr. Rigmaiden might be viewed in this light. Yet, once he revealed that federal agencies were using this technology, journalists and civil libertarians soon discovered that federal agencies have been routinely ignoring Americans' constitutional right NOT to be kept under surveillance unless they are suspected of a crime AND a specific warrant has been issued by a judge.

The FBI cannot truthfully claim that it has nothing to hide. And until the people who hold power can live up to that standard, ordinary folk would be well-advised to defend their privacy.
Oligarchical Collectivism

In 1984, there is a text bearing the title The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. It was the blueprint, so to speak, of the totalitarian society described in the novel. The term signifies “rule by a few,” and “the few” are typically composed of astoundingly wealthy individuals who use their wealth to acquire political influence and use political influence to acquire more wealth. 

Orwell provided some detail on the structure of this oligarchy, as depicted in the image below. As you see, a vanishingly small percentage of the population enjoy outsized benefits and influence. A somewhat larger percentage benefit a little. But the large majority, about 85%, are “proles.” They lead dreary lives working long hours at unpleasant jobs with little security to receive low wages.

Orwell's Dystopian Vision

Oligarchical Individualism (Corporatism)

American society can hardly be accused of being collectivist. We Americans are fiercely individualistic and still believe in the myth of the Self-Made Man who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps and eventually, after facing various hardships, swaggers past the white picket fence and realizes the American Dream

Because of this cultural heritage, we are a little too quick to blame people if it appears that they aren’t trying hard enough to make their own way in society. Also because of this cultural heritage, we have a hard time blaming people for being rich. And it is true, not everyone who becomes rich is blameworthy. The problem is that we often fail to distinguish between (1) persons who achieve wealth honestly by their own hard work and (2) persons who are born into wealth and commit all manners of fraud and deceit to enlarge it.

American Oligarchy
Perhaps the most dangerous consequence of our shared belief in the American Dream is that this dream breeds complacency among members of the Middle Class. Once a person achieves a good-paying job with prospects for advancement, he or she is liable to believe, “I can rest easy now.” It’s very seductive, this idea that one no longer needs to struggle or feel anxious about the future.
However, on closer consideration, we know that many people who consider themselves safe against bitter hardship are mistaken. All it takes is a lay-off, or a divorce, or an expensive medical condition. As we saw at the start of the Great Depression of 2007, the frauds and deceits of great financial firms can cause countless hard-working Americans to suddenly lose their homes or their retirement savings. 

As Orwell points out in 1984, one of the cardinal features of an entrenched oligarchy is its ability to prevent the populace from seeing the obvious. The American oligarchy has been largely successful in concealing the following facts:
  1. the prevailing political order is oligarchic;
  2. the sole purpose of the oligarchy is to accumulate wealth more efficiently into the hands of the oligarchs;
  3. the result of oligarchy is the impoverishment of society as a whole (i.e., high unemployment, reduced wages, reduced public expenditures, deterioration of infrastructure). 
Granted, it is difficult to recognize American oligarchy unless one has already become attentive to the true extent of the devastation that corruption has wrought on American politics and is willing to question one’s party loyalty. Let us say that a piece of legislation is passed which enriches a small handful of wealthy individuals and impoverishes a great many Americans. Members of the Middle Class might think “it is because we live in a two-party system” (i.e., a democrat will blame republicans and vice versa). But they do not notice that these pieces of legislation are passed with bipartisan support. 

Members of the Middle Class might see these pieces of legislation and think, “If it benefits the heads of large corporations it will also benefit me.” In this instance, they are simply failing to understand that they are, in the eyes of the oligarchs, a resource that has yet to be fully exploited. Below are a couple of examples of policy positions and agendas that benefit a few and harm the many, but nonetheless enjoy the support of elected political leaders from both political parties. 

Example 1. Cutting Social Security

Social Security has very strong support among American voters – 89% of Americans believe that the program is more important than ever (source). Back in the day, politicians competed against one another to convince voters that they, and not the fellow on the other side of the aisle, would to more to protect Social Security. Nowadays, however, there is talk of making cuts.  

In their quest to accumulate wealth more efficiently, oligarchs have long fretted over the fact that the cost of employing an American worker is increased by 6.2% because, by law, this is the employer’s contribution to Social Security. Accordingly, corporations have invested in creating lobbying groups such as Fix the Debt to promulgate the false claim that Social Security contributes to the federal deficit (it DOES NOT). In 2014, President Obama floated the idea of cutting Social Security benefits, but he might have realized that the timing of his move was less than ideal and dropped the matter (source). The idea hasn’t gone away, though. During her last bid for president, Mrs. Clinton was of the opinion that Social Security cuts are necessary (source). And more troublingly, her current financial backers are of the opinion that cuts are necessary (source).

Example 2. “In-Sourcing” Low-Cost Foreign Labor

As reported in The Atlantic, “Last October, 250 IT employees at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts in Florida were told that they would be laid off as part of a reorganization. Many were surprised. And then there was another unpleasant surprise: They would be replaced by IT workers from India, whom they would train to do their jobs in order to receive severance (source).” Now, one might argue that Disney is free to hire and fire as they please, but the pertinent fact here is that Disney exploiting the H-1B visa program. Our elected leaders have created a mechanism for replacing American workers with lower-cost foreign workers. This clearly HARMS many and BENEFITS only a few – namely, corporate CEOs and stockholders. When the story broke, it raised predictable complaints among left-wing news outlets but interestingly enough, it angered conservatives as well (source).
Example 3. Trans-Pacific Partnership

Unlike schemes to schemes to cut Social Security, TPP has some popular support (despite its recent setbacks in the House of Representatives). Then again, a recent polled showed that "78% of respondents said they knew 'not much' or 'nothing at all' about it (source). And in addition, politicians have been dishonest in touting the virtues of TPP, according to some critics who lean left politically (source) and some on who lean right (source). We may then ask ourselves, first, would TPP have popular support if the American people were told the truth? And secondly, we may ask why it is that our political leaders are lying to us?
Banks and multinationals regularly ask for help. And get it.

A Short "Is this an Oligarchy?" Quiz

Thus far, I've suggested that the U.S. is an oligarchy because our elected leaders appear to prioritize the preferences of a few over the needs of the many. But there is another way to approach this line of reasoning. Back in the 1970s, scholars looked at the former U.S.S.R. and tried to predict the future. They were pretty sure that the U.S.S.R. would collapse (it did). But they also predicted that the U.S.A. would eventually assume some of the key distinguishing oligarchical features of the U.S.S.R. The interested reader can refer to Donald Kelley's 1973 article, The Soviet Debate on the Convergence of the American & Soviet Systems. The quotes in bold are his.

Item 1: "a gradual shift from the industrial to the service sector of the economy." In 1970, 46.1% of employment was in services; in 2010, the percentage has increased to 84% (source). So far so good.

Item 2: "increasing concentration of economic power into a few firms or monopolies." It has been reported that "nearly every American industry has become more concentrated and consolidated since the 1980s, such that dominance by two or three firms 'is not the exception in the United States, but increasingly the rule.' Consumers, easily misled by product labelling, often don’t even notice that products like sunglasses, pet food, or numerous others come from just a few giants. For example, while drugstores seem to offer unlimited choices in toothpaste, just two firms, Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive, control more than 80% of the market (source)."

It may go without saying, but the dominance of only a few firms (oligopoly) is something that does not happen in a vacuum. Instead, the federal government favors some firms over others, and these advantaged firms use their clout to dominate the marketplace (source).

Item 3: "an increasing governmental role in the economy in a planning and supervisory capacity." The TPP draft document is several hundred pages long, and covers a wide range of intellectual property agreements that have been carefully designed to benefit a handful of American multinational corporations.

Item 4: "high levels of mass consumption for all social strata." This creates the illusion of a classless society. After all, it's our own fault for being heavily in debt, right?

Item 5: "an emphasis on 'mass culture' and 'equalitarianism' rather than class- or value-related ideologies as determinants of positive goals." This item is perhaps the most thought-provoking of them all. Here, "equalitarianism" may be understood as a manifestation of envy, leading to a preoccupation with quantifying differences in the level of privilege enjoyed by one category of human beings as opposed to another. There are authors who produce a lot of words on the subject of privilege without once mentioning the massive upward redistribution of wealth that is currently taking place in our society. 

Oligarchs aren't solely comprised of white men.

Lessons from Poland

Poland’s Solidarity movement sprang up after the country found itself in the orbit of the U.S.S.R. One member of the movement understood that Poland had become an oligarchy. Adam Michnik looked at the political leadership and said, “These people would be capable of bankrupting a country much more prosperous than ours and then calling their actions an economic miracle.” Jack Bloom, another observer of the situation in Poland, sees oligarchy as a highly-developed patronage system, where vast amounts of wealth are required simply to maintain the system of bribery that make oligarchy possible. In Poland, “Poverty was ... a result of the patronage system: the substantial resources that it required were literally stolen from the general population.” It reached the point where, “there was a lack of [public] investment in … infrastructure -- such as sewers, water, electricity and roads.”

Mr. Michnik offers a useful diagnosis of the means by which oligarchies extend control over a population. For each of these means of social control, there are counter-measures that ordinary citizens may take to wrest control back from the oligarchy. 

Step 1: Isolation. The dystopian regime presented in 1984 is described at one point as "the age of solitude." Individual citizens are distrustful of one another and there is no hope of individuals banding together to advance a reform agenda. Mr. Michnik tells us that, in the Polish oligarchy, “Workers’ organizations were dissolved … [and] the working class was transformed into an amorphous, apathetic mass devoid of political consciousness. From then on, the government had to deal with individuals and not with organizations.” Mr. Michnik goes on to describe the situation in Poland as one in which “political consciousness” ceased to exist. The rise of the labor union Solidarity and increased political consciousness among the Poles went hand-in-hand. 

Now, on the matter of “loss of political consciousness,” it isn’t difficult to make the case that this has happened in America. Time magazine and Newsweek are all but absent from the racks at grocery stores’ check-out lines – crowded out by numerous tabloids each offering a slightly different take on the same celebrity rumors, and newspapers are becoming increasingly financially unsustainable. Cable news hardly counts as news. Controversies are stirred up and disappear when people tire of them. But what is learned? What actually changes?
The importance of labor unions is controversial because, in the United States, unions have a deservedly bad reputation. The conservative pundit Nicholas Kristof sums it up well: “I disdained unions as bringing corruption, nepotism and rigid work rules to the labor market, impeding the economic growth that ultimately makes a country strong (source).” Yet, Mr. Kristof has reconsidered his view. He observes that the number of union-represented Americans has decreased and inequality of income has increased.

Mr. Kristof also writes, “I’ve ... changed my mind because, in recent years, the worst abuses by far haven’t been in the union shop but in the corporate suite. One of the things you learn as a journalist is that when there’s no accountability, we humans are capable of tremendous avarice and venality. That’s true of union bosses — and of corporate tycoons. Unions, even flawed ones, can provide checks and balances for flawed corporations.”

For American labor unions to be a meaningful force for combating oligarchy, however, they would need to re-invent themselves. The Polish Solidarity movement wasn't narrowly focused on securing benefits for its members. It championed free speech, better schools, and fairer elections.
Step 2: Disempowerment. Once individuals are isolated from one another through the systematic destruction of social and political organizations, they begin to exhibit “the psychology of captivity.” The individual may be bitter and hateful toward the government, but being “deprived of his community, his ideals, and his language” he is incapable of taking meaningful, constructive action. Occasionally, the people did manage to organize a protest against abuses by their political leaders. However, they were only protests, and not reform movements. As such, protest is merely an expression of emotions, and achieves no lasting, meaningful change in society.

Step 3: Debasement. Mr. Michnik observed that, “long-lived dictatorships engender their own characteristic subculture and their own peculiar normalcy. They create a type of man unused to freedom and truth, ignorant of dignity and autonomy.”One could say that Americans' apparent willingness to exchange freedom for security is a perfect example. It's unlikely, though, that Americans fully realize that it is a trade-off. And this goes back to the loss of political consciousness.

Of the oligarchs, Michnik wrote, “Their strength stems from their ability to release the darkest and basest instincts in ourselves.” So, as long as the people are afraid and selfish in their concerns, they will remain divided. If they see no clear-cut imminent danger to themselves, they will not oppose government policies that will harm other people. In the words of Mr. Michnik, this is "the psychology of a captive."
Deep thoughts
To resist succumbing to the psychology of a captive, it is necessary to undertake, “an unceasing struggle for reform and evolution that seeks an expansion of civil liberties and human rights.” Doing so restores dignity to the individual. This is, Mr. Michnik adds, “the only course … dissidents can take.” 

The Obsolescence of Party Lines. Mr. Michnik realized that, “the conflict between the right and the left belongs to the past.” Rather, he saw that the true conflict is between “the proponents of an open society and the proponents of a closed society. In the former, social order is based on self-government and collective agreements; in the latter, order is achieved through repression and discipline.” In an open society, “the state acts as the guardian of safety for citizens” and in a closed society, “the state is a master and overseer who determines all modes of a society’s existence.” 

Control. Even though an oligarchy can be remarkably effective at suppressing dissent and reform, the oligarchs do not rest easy. Mr. Michnik observed, “The government is afraid of rising social tensions caused by the deteriorating standard of living.” He believed that, even when the people are convinced that they have no power to effect positive social and political change, the oligarchs know better. This is because, ultimately, a “country cannot be ruled without an agreement with the people.”
For this reason, in an oligarchy, one will always see a continuing expansion of the police apparatus and mass surveillance. And for this reason, the vigorous defense of civil liberties, and personal and social freedoms, is essential.