Left Educational Tasks in a Capital-Occupied Nation

 This essay first appeared on ZNet on May 9, 2012.  Eager to find and amplify signs of mass radical potential in a period when the capitalist rich are ever more clearly destroying democracy and the Earth – the chances for a decent future –we on the United States left are understandably prone to underestimate the ideological power of the ruling class. Recently, for example, a comrade sent me a link  and suggested that I look at, and join him in celebrating, a December 2011 Pew Research Center opinion survey showing that nearly two-thirds of the American people think there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor.  The percentage of Americans who think this has apparently risen 19 points since 2009.   

Pew attributes part of this public opinion to the success of the Occupy Movement in putting the problem of economic inequality into the political and media culture.[1] So does my correspondent, quite eagerly. I’m pretty sure they are right about that.

 Identifying a Phenomenon v. Opposing It

But so what? Perceiving that strong class conflict exists is simply not the same as thinking that America’s harsh class inequality (see below) is a problem that should and be overcome and undone through reform and/or revolution. As Pew noted in the online write-up of its aforementioned survey, rising perceptions of class conflict do not necessarily mean increasing grievances toward the rich or support for measures to reduce inequality. In fact, as Pew staffer Rich Morin added, “a recent Gallup survey found that a smaller share of the public believes that income inequality is a problem ‘that needs to be fixed’ than held this belief in 1998 (45% vs. 52%):”[2] 

The fact that some people in the United States are rich and others are poor is…. …an acceptable part of our economic system …a problem that needs to be fixed
April 23-May 31, 1998 45% 52%
November 28-December 1, 2011 52% 45%

Source:  http://www.gallup.com/poll/151568/americans-prioritize-growing-economy-reducing-wealth-gap.aspx

Worse (from a Left perspective), when asked by Gallup to rate the value of alternative federal policies at the end of November and beginning of December last year (when Occupy was still very much in the national and local U.S. news), “fewer than half (46%) of survey respondents [said] that ‘reduc[ing] the income and wealth gap between rich and poor’ is  ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ important.  In contrast, more than eight-in-ten (82%) [said] that policies that encourage economic growth should be high priorities.”  Seven-in-ten (70%) said that that policies to “increase the equality of opportunity for people to get ahead if they want to” should be “extremely” or very important” policy priorities.[3] 

How Important is it that the federal government enact policies to….. Extremely Important Very Important Somewhat Important Not Important
…grow and expand the economy? 32 50 12 6
Increase the equality of opportunity for people to get ahead if they want to? 29 41 18 12
…reduce the income and wealth gap between rich and poor? 17 29 26 28

Source:  http://www.gallup.com/poll/151568/americans-prioritize-growing-economy-reducing-wealth-gap.aspx 

So, the percentage of Americans who want to reduce economic class inequality in their country is less than half and actually fell between the end of the last century and the rise and repression of Occupy.  The belief that income and wealth should be redistributed downward is trumped by the environmentally toxic growth ideology, according to which the solution to poverty is not greater equality or societal restructuring but material-economic expansion – the timeworn and now ever more evidently Eco-cidal capitalist promise of a rising tide that lifts all boats.  The belief in an increase in greater actual equality is trumped by a belief in an increase in the mythical bourgeois promise of equal opportunity. [4] 

Luck v. Hard Work 

Speaking of “equal opportunity,” there’s also the related question of whether the rich (what Occupy has many of us calling “the 1%”) became wealthy through hard work or skill or because they were born into a wealthy family or had connections. Sadly enough from a Left perspective, the nation is just barely more than evenly divided on that critical matter.  Pew found that: 

“A narrow plurality (46%) believes the rich are wealthy because they were born into money or ‘know the right people.’ But nearly as many (43%) say the rich got that way because of their own ‘hard work, ambition or education.’” 

“The latest result is virtually identical to the findings of a 2008 Pew survey. It found that 46% of the public believed that riches are mostly the result of having the right connections or being born into the right family, while 42% say hard work and individual characteristics are the main reason the rich are wealthy.” [5] 

So, the onset of the Epic Recession and the massive taxpayer bailout of the super-parasitic, hyper-opulent financial overlords who crashed the national and global economy have not reduced the distressingly high percentage of Americans who think the rich “earned” their fortunes.  Tellingly enough, Pew found that people with family incomes less than $20,000 a year are no more likely than rich people and the rest of the population to perceive the critical role of luck and connections in explaining the riches of the Few. 

Educational Tasks Ahead 

I do not go through this unpleasant material to demoralize activists and others who share my faith in the urgent necessity of social and political action to reduce (and ultimately abolish) class inequality within the beyond the U.S. I do it rather to make two positive and hopeful (I think) suggestions on how to make the U.S. the left “organizers paradise” some radical thinkers say it ought to be.    

First, in forming messages, strategies, vision, and tactics to push our movements forward in the current heavily business-poisoned political culture, we should always start with the whole truth regarding public opinion (and anything else that matters). The full truth regarding U.S. public opinion on class disparity is mixed from a left standpoint.  It is good (from a left perspective) that more Americans think that the rich owe their wealth to luck and connections than think the wealthy earned their opulence through effort and skill. It is good that 72 percent of Americans think it is “important” to reduce the income and wealth gap between the rich and poor (that’s the number you get when you add the “somewhat important” response to the December 2011 Gallup survey) and even that 88 percent think it is important to increase “equality of opportunity.” But it is bad (from a left view) that more Americans buy into the environmentally disastrous growth ideology (the “rising tide” toxin), that less than half and a declining (between 1998 and late 2011) percentage of Americans tell Gallup that inequality is a problem requiring a solution, that (just) more than half say inequality is “an acceptable part of our economic system” (whose system?), and that nearly as many Americans think the parasitic and privileged rich deserve their wealth as think that the rich got their fortunes from luck and privilege. 

Second, acknowledging the considerable amount of bourgeois-hegemonic public opinion we still have to contend with in the U.S. helps us understand where we need to focus our energies in coming months and years. The Left has some daunting but basic and do-able educational work ahead on class inequality and its terrible consequences in America.  Mass corporate-manufactured popular ignorance – a systematic, elite-imposed lack of information and of the opportunity to access meaningful information about social and political reality – is behind the disagreeable fact that vast swaths of the majority working class U.S. public continue to hold beliefs that undermine their own immediate situation and the broader fate of a livable Earth. I am certain that Gallup and Pew’s numbers would be much more progressive, radical, and environment-friendly if their surveys were given only after respondents were given significant accurate and reasonably framed information on: 

* The real and shocking depth and degree of wealth and income disparity in the U.S. today and as it has deepened over the last four decades and as it has ebbed and flowed over the last 120 years. 

* The deadly impact of the nation’s extreme concentration of wealth and income for functioning democracy. 

* The role of such mechanisms of elite rule as campaign contributions, high-priced lobbyists, corporate media ownership, corporate public relations and advertising and more in turning American democracy into a plutocratic charade and subjecting U.S. politics and policy to “the unelected dictatorship or money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson’s excellent phrase).

* The wide prevalence of a strong work ethic among non-affluent working class majority Americans 

* The numerous deep institutional and other societal barriers to basic economic security and advancement most Americans face today. 

* The remarkable structural, economic, social and cultural advantages rich people tend to enjoy from birth and to pass on from one generation to the next. 

* The shocking depth and degree of poverty and related ills in the contemporary U.S. and the roles the wealthy Few play in creating that poverty and misery. 

* The remarkable extent of ecological damage and the growing specter of Eco-cide and the rooting of that devastation in the growth- and accumulation-addicted workings of the profits system. 

Misinformed: An Example 

Let’s take a quick look at popular U.S. beliefs about inequality. As business professor Michael Norton and psychologist Dan Ariely showed in an important 2011 study based on a randomly selected social science survey of 5,552 people, most Americans think that the ideal distribution of wealth in America would be one in which the top 20 percent owned between 30 and 40 percent of the privately held wealth and the bottom 40 percent had between 25 and 30 percent [6]

That is hardly a perfectly egalitarian distribution, but it is far more progressive than the actual distribution of wealth in the U.S. In real world America, just the top 1 percent owns the share of net worth –between 30 and 40 percent – that most Americans think should go to the top fifth. The top 10 percent owns two-thirds of the nation’s wealth (including 90 percent of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and more than three fourths of non-home real estate)[7] and the 20 percent owns 84 percent of the nation’s wealth.  That leaves 4 out of 5 Americans to fight it out for just less than a sixth of the nation’s net worth. And most in the nation’s bottom four quintiles are getting pummeled in that battle: the bottom 40 percent of Americans (those who most Americans think would ideally get between 25 and 30 percent) has 0.3 percent of the nation’s wealth, basically nothing.[8]

The respondents to Norton and Ariely’s survey were presented with two unlabeled pie charts, one showing the quintile-by-quintile wealth distributions of the U.S. and the other showing the same in Sweden, where the top 20 percent only controls 36 percent of wealth. Without knowing which country they were picking, 92 percent of respondents said they’d rather live in a country with Sweden’s wealth distribution pie chart. Norton and Ariely’s conclusion ought to warm any leftist hearts:  

“Overall, these results demonstrate two primary messages. First, a large nationally representative sample of Americans seems to prefer to live in a country more like Sweden than like the United States. Americans also construct ideal distributions that are far more equal than they estimated the United States to be – estimates which themselves were far more equal than the actual level of inequality. Second, there was much more consensus than disagreement across groups from different sides of the political spectrum about this desire for a more equal distribution of wealth, suggesting that Americans may possess a commonly held ‘normative’ standard for the distribution of wealth despite the many disagreements about policies that affect that distribution, such as taxation and welfare.”[9]

Why does the stark disparity between Americans’ ideal distribution of wealth and the real distribution of wealth in the U.S. not – with all due respect for the impressive, game-changing Occupy Movement  –  provoked more populist than it has so far? Why doesn’t the number of Americans who think that class inequality is “a problem that should be fixed” dwarf the number of Americans who think it is “an acceptable part of our economic system?”  A full answer to these questions would take more pages than space permits here,[10] but it is safe to say that a significant part of the answer is that most Americans are woefully ignorant of the depth and degree of wealth inequality in “their” country. We vastly underestimate the extent of U.S. wealth disparity. Norton and Ariely’s report, titled “Building a Better America — One Wealth Quintile at a Time,” showed that across ideological, economic and gender groups, Americans believe that the richest 20 percent possessed about 59 percent of the wealth (25 points short of reality). Most people in the survey guessed that the bottom 40 percent had between 8 and 10 percent (8 to 10 points above reality). It’s hard to be angry about and want to fix a problem you don’t know exists or which you drastically underestimate.

Here we confront a cold, viciously circular fact of ruling class power. The top 1 percent owns the major mass media that hundreds of millions of Americans rely on for accurate information on the complex world they inhabit. And the wealthy Few are hardly eager to see the citizenry accurately and seriously told about the real distribution of wealth (and hence power) in the U.S., the terrible consequences of that concentration (massive and rising poverty, economic instability, ecological ruin, devastated social services, abject plutocracy and more), how the rich really got and get rich, and the rooting of extreme wealth concentration in the basic workings of the profits system (capitalism).

Redefining Growth 

One particularly urgent subject on which public is systematically and dangerously under-informed and misinformed by state-capitalist media and the broader ideological system is of course the environment. If most of the citizenry was accurately and regularly told about the grave threats posed by expansion-addicted capitalism to livable ecology (and hence to a decent future), they would be much less susceptible to the deadly “growth ideology” – the “rising tide lifts all boats” mantra that Western capitalism has long advanced over redistribution of wealth and income as the (false) solution to poverty and joblessness. Properly informed about rising eco-existential threats to our species and other living things, they would increasingly turn to redistribution over growth as the better path to security.  They would also embrace a greener, more ecology-friendly definition of “growth” – one that advances environmentally sound and sustainable modes of working, consuming, and living – over the current eco-cidal path imposed by “the 1%,” for whom the fate of the Earth is nothing more a cost to be externalized in the endless socio-pathological pursuit of profit. 

They would be likely to agree with Noam Chomsky, whose latest book Occupy calls, among other things, for redefining growth.  As Greg Ruggerio notes in the book’s introduction, Chomsky argues that if we continue with the current reigning growth model, we’ll be like “lemmings walking over a cliff.”  Instead, Ruggerrio notes, Chomsky “encourages the movement to continue spreading ideas about ‘a different way of living’ that is based not on maximizing how much we can buy but on ‘maximizing values that are important for life.’”[11]  Such redefinition, inextricably linked to the problem of class and capital, is essential for a decent future.  It lay at the heart of a serious Left’s daunting but do-able educational agenda today. 

Who will tell the people? The authorities won’t, that’s for sure. 

Paul Street’s many books include The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefied, 2007), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio), Crashing the Tea Party (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at paulstreet99@yahoo.com 


[1] Rich Morin, “Rising Share of Americans See Conflict Between Rich and Poor,” Pew Research Center (January 12, 2012) at http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/01/11/rising-share-of-americans-see-conflict-between-rich-and-poor/ 

[2] Morin, “Rising Share;” Frank Newport, “Americans Prioritize Economy Over Reducing Wealth Gap,” Gallup (December 16, 2011) at http://www.gallup.com/poll/151568/americans-prioritize-growing-economy-reducing-wealth-gap.aspx 

[3] Newport, “Americans Prioritize.” 

[4] Perhaps the single most deadly contribution of the rich to the potential demise of the human race is their underwriting of the core Western notion that growth is the solution to social crises resulting from inequality, poverty and unemployment. A “rising tide lifts all boats,” the standard Western maxim maintains, supposedly making obsolete angry comparisons between the Few’s luxuriant yachts and the Many’s leaking rowboats.  “Expanding the pie,” the conventional top-down wisdom has long asserted, abolishes the supposedly irrelevant question of how the pie is shared out.  ”To escape any reevaluation,” the French journalist and author Herve Kempf notes, “the oligarchy keeps repeating the dominant ideology according to which the solution to the social crisis is production growth.  This is supposedly the sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment.”  Abundant data over the last three-and-a-half decades shows that economic growth does not in fact reliably undo those and other social evils. But the notion that material growth is the answer lives on in elite-controlled media and political culture because it induces societies plagued by structurally imposed poverty and idleness “to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them” (Kempf). Besides being demonstrably false on its own terms, the reigning expansion doctrine ignores capitalist-model “growth” ‘s lethal environmental impact .Herve Kempf, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2007). For other useful discussions of the growth ideology, see William Greider, Come Home America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country (New York: Rodale, 2009), 192-217 and James Gustav Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, The Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 46-66.  On the current grave and deepening environmental crisis, see John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet (New York: Monthly Review, 2010); Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Climate Change Odds Much Worse Than Thought: New Analysis Shows Warming Could Be Double Previous Estimates,” MIT News, May 19, 2009, at http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2009/roulette-0519.html#.; Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Times Books, 2010); Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (London: Fourth Estate, 2007); Chris Williams, Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Chicago: Haymarket, 2010); Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World

[5] Morin, “Rising Share.” 

[6] Michael Norton and Dan Ariely, “Building a Better America One Wealth Quintile at a Time,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2011, 6:9, read online at http://www.people.hbs.edu/mnorton/norton%20ariely.pdf 

[7] .“Since financial wealth is what counts as far as the control of income-producing assets,” the leading wealth and power analyst G. William Domhoff notes, “we can say that just 10% of the people own the United States of America.” See G. William Domhoff, “WhoRulesAmerica.Net” at http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/

[8] .Domhoff, “WhoRulesAmerica.Net” 

[9] Norton and Ariely, “Building,” 12. 

[10] Here is Norton and Ariely’s academic citation-laden take on the question:  “Given the consensus among disparate groups on the gap between an ideal distribution of wealth and the actual level of wealth inequality, why are more Americans, especially those with low income, not advocating for greater redistribution of wealth? First, our results demonstrate that Americans appear to drastically underestimate the current level of wealth inequality, suggesting they may simply be unaware of the gap. Second, just as people have erroneous beliefs about the actual level of wealth inequality, they may also hold overly optimistic beliefs about opportunities for social mobility in the United States (Benabou & Ok, 2001; Charles & Hurst, 2003; Keister, 2005), beliefs which in turn may drive support for unequal distributions of wealth. Third, despite the fact that conservatives and liberals in our sample agree that the current level of inequality is far from ideal, public disagreements about the causes of that inequality may drown out this consensus (Alesina & Angeletos, 2005; Piketty, 1995). Finally, and more broadly, Americans exhibit a general disconnect between their attitudes toward economic inequality and their self-interest and public policy preferences (Bartels, 2005; Fong, 2001), suggesting that even given increased awareness of the gap between ideal and actual wealth distributions, Americans may remain unlikely to advocate for policies that would narrow this gap.” Norton and Ariely, “Building,” 12. 

[11] Greg Ruggerio, “Occupying With Noam Chomsky,” Revised Introduction to Noam Chomsky, Occupy (Zucotti Park Press, 2012), at http://www.zcommunications.org/occupying-with-noam-chomsky-by-greg-ruggiero

Facebook Comments
By | 2012-05-11T10:36:11+00:00 May 11th, 2012|Articles|