Plutocracy without end, by Thomas Frank
Source Dave Anderson
Date 14/04/07/02:01
Plutocracy without end: Why the 1 percent always defeats the middle class
There are more of us than them. But income inequality keeps getting
worse - and there is sadly no end in sight


I've been writing about what we politely call "inequality" since the
mid-1990s, but one day about ten years ago, when I was traveling the
country lecturing about the toxic curlicues of right-wing culture, it
dawned on me that maybe I had been getting the entire story wrong. All
the economic developments that I spent my days bemoaning--the obscene
enrichment of the CEO class, the assault on the regulatory state, the
ruination of average people--were very possibly not what I thought they
were. When I talked about these things, I assumed they were an
outrage, an affront to the affluent nation I still believed we were;
once the scales fell from our eyes and Americans figured out what was
happening, I argued, we would yell "stop," bring this age of folly to
a close, and get back to middle-class prosperity as usual.

What hit me that day was the possibility that my happy, postwar
middle-class world was the exception, and that the plutocracy we were
gradually becoming was the norm. Maybe what was happening to us was a
colossal reversion to a pre-Rooseveltian mean, and all the trappings
of ordinary life that had seemed so solid and so permanent when I was
young--the vast suburbs and the anchorman's reassuring baritone and the
nice appliances that filled the houses of the working class--were
aberrations made possible by an unusual balance of political forces
maintained only by the enormous political efforts of its

Maybe the gravity of history pulled in the exact opposite direction of
what I had always believed. If so, the question was not, "When will we
get back to the right order of things," but rather, "Would we ever
stop falling?"

Today, of course, the situation has grown vastly worse. The subject of
inequality is discussed everywhere; there are think tanks and academic
conferences dedicated to it; it has become socially permissible for
polite people to wonder about the obscene gorging of those at the top.
Sooner or later the question that everyone asks, upon discovering just
how much of what Americans produce goes to the imbeciles in the
penthouses and executive suites, is this: How much further can this
thing go?

The One Percent have already broken every record for wealth-hogging
set by their ancestors, going back to the dawn of record-keeping in
1913. But what if it all just keeps going? How much fatter can the fat
cats get before they hit some kind of natural limit? Before the
invisible thumb of history presses down on the other side of the scale
and restores balance?

That we are very close to such a limit--that the contradictions
inherent in the system will automatically be its undoing--is an idea
much in the air of late. Not many still subscribe to Marx's
dialectical vision of history, in which inevitable worker immiseration
would be followed, also inevitably, by a revolutionary explosion, but
there are other inevitabilities that seem equally persuasive today. We
hear much, for example, about how inequality contributed to the
housing bubble and the financial crisis, how it has brought us an
imbalanced economy that cannot survive.

It reminds me of the once-influential theory of inequality advanced by
the economist Simon Kuznets, who thought that capitalist societies
simply became more egalitarian as they matured--a theory that is
carefully debunked by economist Thomas Piketty in his new book,
"Capital in the Twenty-First Century." It also reminds me of the
theories of the economist Ravi Batra, who in 1987 predicted a "Great
Depression of 1990" because (among other things) inequality would have
by then had reached what he believed to be unsustainable levels.

It is an attractive fantasy, this faith that some kind of built-in
restraint will stop all this from going too far. Unfortunately, what
it reminds me of the most are the similar mechanisms that Democrats
like to dream about on those occasions when the Republican Party has
won another election. As the triumphant wingers stand athwart the
unconscious bodies of their opponents, beating their chests and
bellowing for some new and awesomely destructive tax cut, a liberal's
heart turns longingly to such chimera as pendulum theory, or
thirty-year-cycle theory, or the theory of the inevitable triumph of
the center. Some great force will fix those guys, we mumble. One of
these days, they'll get their comeuppance.

But the cosmic cavalry never shows up. No deus ex machina will arrive
to rescue the middle-class society, either. The economic system is
always in some sort of crisis or another; somehow it always manages to

One of the ways it manages to survive, in fact, is by working the
public into paroxysms of fear at those who proclaim the inevitable
destruction of the system. I refer here not only to the Republicans'
routine deploring of "class war," by which they mean any criticism of
plutocracy, but also to the once-influential right-wing radio host
Glenn Beck, who in 2009 and 2010 was just about the only one in
America who thought to take seriously the obscure French anarchist
tract, "The Coming Insurrection." Night after night in those dark
days, Beck would use the book to terrify his vast audience of seniors
and goldbugs--anarchy was right around the corner!--and to this day you
can still find the tract on the reading lists of 9/12 clubs across the

Let us not forget that it was thanks to the energetic activity of
those 9/12 clubs and the closely aligned Tea Party that the obvious
and conventional -- and maybe even inevitable -- response to the 2008
catastrophe was not the response the public chose. According to an
important recent paper by the sociologists Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza,
the orthodox poli-sci theory of economic downturn holds that voters
"turn away from unregulated markets and demand more government in
times of economic downturn and rising unemployment." But in the
downturn of the last few years, people reacted differently: "Rather
than the recession stimulating new public demands for governent,
Americans gravitated toward lower support for government
responsibility for social and economic problems." And they swept in
the Republican Congress of 2010, a result that, according to Brooks
and Manza, has much to do with the hyperbolic conservatism of partisan
organizations like Fox News.

A second irony, worth noting in passing, is that the right-wing
offensive against public pensions, which began as soon as the
Republican wave landed, has been carried on under the banner of
historical determinism, with everyone agreeing that the rich are going
to get their way with the unions and that no alternative exists.
("Detroit pension cuts were inevitable, city consultant testifies,"
screams a typical headline on the subject.)

None of this is to deny, of course, that concentrated wealth will have
certain predictable social effects, in addition to the brutal primary
effect of screwing you and yours permanently. Inequality will most
definitely bring further corruption of our political system, which
will in turn lead to further deregulation and bailouts, which will
eventually allow epidemics of fraud and failure. It will definitely
bring an aggravated business cycle, with crazy booms and awful busts.
We know these things will happen because this is what has happened in
our own time. But that doesn't mean the situation will somehow cease
to function as a matter of course, or that leading capitalists will be
converted to Keynesianism en masse and start insisting on better
oversight of Wall Street.

The ugly fact that we must face is that this thing can go much farther
still. Plutocracy shocks us every day with its viciousness, but that
doesn't mean God will strike it down. The middle-class model worked
much better for about ninety-nine percent of the population, but that
doesn't make it some kind of dialectic inevitability. You can build a
plutocratic model that will stumble along just fine, like it did in
the nineteenth century. It requires different things: instead of
refrigerators for all, it needs bought legislatures and armies of
strikebreakers--plus bailouts for the big banks when they collapse
under the weight of their stupid loans, an innovation of our own time.
All this may be hurtful, inefficient, and undemocratic, but it won't
dismantle itself all on its own.

That is our job. No one else is going to do it for us.

Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books
include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and
"One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler

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