A new academic study of the relationship between economics and politics in the United States comes to an interesting conclusion, one that I think scans with what many of us have intuited for a long time about American society, but that runs counter to our democratic ideological presuppositions. In short, the study argues, we are not a democracy at all, but an oligarchy.
As summarized in the abstract, their "analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence." In other words, the super-rich and the institutions dedicated to serving their interests have a much greater effect on U.S. policy than the opinions and actions of ordinary people.
And this is precisely the kind of conclusion one would reach by watching the news for the past five years. During this period, the Tea Party, which is a total sham of a political movement, orchestrated, financed and inspired by the ideological preferences of the super rich, like the Koch brothers, and their mouth-pieces, like Rick Santelli, has been effective at preventing any genuine social reform or the achievement of any substantial redistribution of wealth and power in the United States. Even their great failure -- preventing Obama's health reform act -- was the failure to prevent an act that really ultimately solidified the control of health care by private insurance companies, to the benefit of their bottom lines.
Meanwhile, Occupy, which was a genuinely grassroots movement, suffered both from it's own self-destructive tendencies and the organized attempts to repress it by governments and media organizations. And while I lay the blame for Occupy's failure mostly at the feet of its organizers, it's also true that Occupy groups that sprouted up in other countries with a deeper tradition of social protest and a more representative set of governing structures, were at least moderately more effective at achieving serious reforms.
And this brings me back to Thomas Piketty, whom I mentioned yesterday, and his book Capital in the 21st Century. Another article about the book discusses the political and economic salience of the message occupy was promoting:
Piketty's thesis, supported by his extensive research, is that financial inequality in the 21st century is on the rise, and accelerating at a very dangerous pace. For one thing, this changes the way we look at the past. We already knew that the end of capitalism predicted by Marx never happened – and that even by the time of the Russian revolution of 1917, wages across the rest of Europe were already on the rise. We also knew that Russia was anyway the most undeveloped country in Europe and it was for this reason that communism took root there. Piketty goes on to point out, however, that only the varying crises of the 20th century – mainly two world wars – prevented the steady growth of wealth by temporarily and artificially levelling out inequality. Contrary to our perceived perception of the 20th century as an age in which inequality was eroded, in real terms it was always on the rise.
In the 21st century, this is not only the case in the so-called "rich" countries – the US, the UK and western Europe – but also in Russia, China and other countries which are emerging from a phase of development. The real danger is that if this process is not arrested, poverty will increase at the same rate and, Piketty argues, we may well find that the 21st century will be a century of greater inequality, and therefore greater social discord, than the 19th century.
The question that governments need to begin contemplating is whether continuing to serve the interests of wealthy elites at the expense of the population at large is worth the increased instability that will, sooner or later, erupt into another mass protest movement, uncontrolled and potentially uncontrollable by political, economic, and media elites.
For those of us who value liberal structures and institutions, the possibility of such mass disruption should be of great concern, because there is no guarantee that it will result in a more equal, just and representative society. It could just as easily result in a prolonged era of social strife, violence, and and repression. This isn't the first time we've been to this dance, and we've got lots of examples of how this can play out. The fact that the United States transitioned from the social upheaval of the 1930s into a relatively just and stable set of economic norms in the post World War II era is no insurance that it will do so again.
If we value the peace and stability of democratic societies then, we'd better start thinking seriously about what it would mean to create a more genuinely representative and equal society now, before there is blood in the streets.