Sunday, March 16, 2008

Our Ruling Class

Yesterday, I got into a discussion with a friend of mine who respectfully disagreed that America is dominated by a ruling class that uses the GOP as its political organ. This friend is an intelligent man with considered opinions but his characterization of my assertions was that he was more optimistic than me, that my viewpoints were too cynical and he had greater faith in the basic goodness of humans generally and Americans in particular.

The flashpoint for our discussion began as a four-way conversation regarding free wireless internet and the lawsuit a few years ago wherein Verizon used our legal system to shut down the City of Philadelphia's attempt to blanket the city in free wireless internet access, something about interfering with the free market or some such bullshit. Amid much point/counter-point, the upshot of our conversation was that my assertion (and that of the other participants) was that the interests of the ruling class - by way of multi-national corporate interests which largely though not completely overlap - are served by locking out the underclasses from the tools of prosperity. While he agreed with our assertion was that such action is counter-productive to the economy specifically and society generally, he chalked it up to short-sightedness on the part of a small group of greedy business tycoons without joining us in attributing it to some larger program. He tried to make the point that the "ruling class" would not want to hobble the masses from contributing to the larger prosperity of the nation (I'm trying to be fair to his argument) because everyone benefits when everyone participates in the general welfare.

I said that such a model works when the prosperity of a single nation is at stake, but now we have a ruling superclass (the personal equivalent of the multi-national corporation) for whom national boundaries are just so many lines on a map. They keep their money in Euros and other currencies, they bank from the Caymans and trot the globe with little thought about their impact on the environment or any particular local population - thus their personal welfare is not very tightly bound to the welfare of any particular nation or people. America becomes just one more place to exploit to exhaustion before moving on. He countered that such a class of people is very small and to assert any kind of primacy on their part is to sound conspiratorial to the level of Oliver Stone's JFK.

I then began to bring forward further examples of a long-term ruling class program to turn America into a banana republic: the school voucher program, which exists only to undermine (with the eventual goal of eliminating) the public schooling system. He argued that while the voucher program is misguided, the support for it derives from a good-hearted nostalgia for an America that never really existed. I countered that while such nostalgia is a minor pillar of the larger public support for vouchers, such support grows from a deliberate PR campaign on the part of wealthy interests with a hidden agenda, and that the program itself exists to undermine public education and ensure that we will always have an undereducated working class to stock the shelves of the Wal-Mart.

He countered with the assertion that we don't really have a ruling class in America, we are a democracy afterall. A third fellow in the discussion noted that George W. Bush derives from just such a class, inherited from Europe and always deeply hostile to the notion of democracy, which they tolerate mostly because it's good for business. He countered that we don't in fact have such a class because those people either stayed in England to begin with or went back after the revolution and I said that such people were called loyalists and they didn't so much disappear as transform.

Unfortunately, we were arguing at the end of lunch break and were unable to continue past the English re-patriation part of the conversation.

So I will finish it here, as briefly as possible

Viewed his way, American history looks meandering and disjointed - a series of accidents with no truly bad actors. I can't go there. While I don't believe that some Illuminati-style group of freemasons meets in a Star Chamber and picks the next Super Bowl winner, I do think the vast disparity of wealth in this country (to say nothing of the vast disparity between the wealthy of Europe and America as compared to the poor of Africa and South America) has created a class of people with the will, the patience and the political power to affect national and world events to their benefit over the long term. They fear social change because the status quo has made and keeps them rich. These people have been able to enlist the broader support of a large enough collection of various social, economic and religious groups which share their fear of changing the status quo (as long as the specifics of what exactly constitutes "status quo" are never examined) to build a coalition under the banner of "conservative" that will undermine and eventually eliminate the engine of change that has been the American political process from its inception.

I increasingly see our political process through such a lens. If that makes me cynical, then I plead guilty.

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